ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTESTERS were parading through Syntagma Square when I arrived in Athens on June 18 for the following day’s opening of Dakis Joannou’s annual post-Basel exhibitions at his Deste Foundation and its project space on Hydra. “Greece, the birthplace of drama,” commented architect Andreas Angelidakis, who met me at a nearby hotel. The city definitely had theater, that’s for sure, in the port of Piraeus, where the annual Athens and Epidaurus Festival was taking place. Topping the bill was Doug Aitken’s Black Mirror, a live stage show with video projections coproduced by the festival and Deste.
It had two performances on a barge docked at the festival site, but that afternoon Aitken was sailing his floating amphitheater to Hydra, where Joannou’s guests would see it. So I followed Angelidakis and artist Angelo Plessas to the ten-year-old National Museum of Contemporary Art. Until its own building is completed, the museum has taken temporary residence in the concrete basement of the Athens music conservatory, overlooking the dusty, weed-strewn pit that was once Plato’s Academy. What would the ancients have made of Plessas’s Angelo Foundation School of Music? The Internet-based project was installed on computers in a hallway, where museumgoers could plink out random tunes when cued by Tantric symbols on the monitors. “They get together and make the sound of fertility,” Plessas explained.
Paris-based dealer Alex Hertling joined us later that evening for an after-hours visit to Rebecca Camhi’s gallery and a dinner in an outdoor lesbian bar large enough to fill an entire plaza. The protesters didn’t know what they were missing! Next morning found Hertling and Gavin Brown director Bridget Donahue trying on hats and platform shoes at Remember, an ’80s punk boutique in the heart of the Plaka, the touristy market behind the Acropolis hill. An eager saleswoman showed us snapshots of Chloë Sevigny, the star of Aitken’s show, who had visited the day before—on a research trip, no doubt.
Debt-ridden Greece might not be expected to support the outsize ambitions of many contemporary artists. But the country still has outsize collectors like Joannou, who seem immune to its flailing economy. Basically retired from his construction empire, he now devotes his time to art and some of the people who make it—artists like Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, Urs Fischer, Robert Gober, Paweł Althamer, and, lately, Jakub Ziółkowski and Kerstin Brätsch.
The last two, and Catellan (a favorite son), were among the guests at Deste on Sunday night for a private view of “Investigations of a Dog—Works from the FACE Collections,” a traveling show making its final stop on a tour of the five private European collections that partnered to supply it with material. At Deste, curated by Nadia Agryropulou, it amounted to a visual version of a primo mix tape. Upstairs, Brätsch and her collaborator Das Institut (Adele Roeder) were modeling limited-edition silk scarves printed with the patterns of Brätsch’s paintings, on view in a room of moving mirrors, a permanent installation by Urs Fischer. Ziółkowski’s cartoony, scatological “Story of the Eye” drawings, selected by Cecilia Alemani, had their own black-walled room, as did Paul Chan’s digital projection My Birds . . . Trash . . . The Future.
There was nowhere to go from here but the roof terrace, where Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, one of the lenders for the show, bent elbows with an equally eclectic bunch: lender Joao Rendeiro; Greek culture minister Pavlos Geroulanos; curators Paolo Colombo and Denys Zacharopoulos; Hollywood agent-collector Dan Aloni; collectors Jean-Pierre and Rachel Lehmann; Armory Show VP Paul Morris; and Aitken dealers Lisa Spellman, Eva Presenhuber, Victoria Miro, and Shaun Caley Regen.
Vans ferried the party to a bountiful dinner at the hilltop Joannou home, where the usual plethora of Koons works, including his red Balloon Dog, had been displaced by a number of Althamer sculptures that Joannou installed himself. “The Balloon Dog has been out there for twelve years,” he said. “It was time to shake things up.” Tate Modern’s new director Chris Dercon was on his own tear, decrying art magazines that publish only positive reviews. “The visual arts are like a sponge that soaks up everything,” he complained. “There’s no discourse anymore. We need writers willing to write bad reviews!”
Sorry, but “The Last Grand Tour,” one of two shows the group visited at the Museum of Cycladic Art the next morning, was not as hokey as it first sounded, even if Leonard Cohen’s Hydra-inspired “Bird on a Wire” was wafting through the galleries. Curated by the Tate’s Jessica Morgan, it rounded up an enviable selection of works by artists like Brice Marden, Martin Kippenberger, Daniel Spoerri, Cy Twombly, and Lynda Benglis, all of whom have had studios in Greece at some point over the past sixty years.
The museum was also hosting an exhibition of the five finalists for the 2011 Deste Prize, awarded every two years by an international jury to a young Greek artist. The big favorite was Theodoros Stamatogiannis’s parquet-door-in-the-parquet-floor, a perfect meld of architecture and sculpture, though an athletic pole-dancing routine performed in another gallery by choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis and two skimpily clad dancers made everyone suddenly so conscious of their own bodies, it registered as a successful new way to consider the human form.
The pole dancers were a minor topic of conversation on the hydrofoil taking us to Hydra for Black Mirror and its related installation in the island’s former slaughterhouse, now an exhibition space overlooking the Aegean. At sundown, the art tribe gathered portside to await the arrival of Aitken’s theater barge, a decommissioned ferry on which the artist had erected four drive-in movie–size screens around a platform stage. “I can’t believe all these people are here,” said Marden, who was coincidentally on the island to attend a wedding with his daughter Mirabelle.
Drummers stationed above the deck thrummed a processional pace as the audience, nearly three hundred strong, came on board and took seats on two sides of the stage. A cityscape image that looked vaguely like Los Angeles remained onscreen as the barge took off to drift along the coast. The show lasted fifty minutes. It seemed longer, but the setting was so beautiful and the sounds so lulling, most of us were happy to drift along and think about it later.
Though the stage had a simple, motel room set, Black Mirror really takes place in the digital cloud, where rootless people embodied by an affectless Sevigny can virtually move across the world, connecting only by email before moving off again. “Check in, check out,” said Sevigny, whenever she appeared on the motel set. The phrase would become the mantra of the week.
Trapped on the boat, the audience hung in, yawning a bit as it waited for drama and watched seductive images of airplanes, room keys, islands, palm trees, neon signs—images of the physical world—float by on the projection screens. The feeling was that of an endless present. “We don’t talk about the future much,” Sevigny intoned at one point. “Anything longer than a day is too much time. . . . It’s almost too much to hold on to.”
Two gospel singers imported from LA appeared and performed “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the show’s theme song, in the classic 1959 doo-wop version by the Flamingos. One of the singers, Leo Gallo, threw on a hoodie to do a clogging tap-dance number. The two-man band No Age took the stage to rock the boat. A bullwhip cracker did a percussive set with two whips snapping out a Morse code–like rhythm. Stagehands took apart the set, leaving only the vertical poles supporting it in each corner, when—what are the odds?—four Olympian pole dancers took to them to perform a dazzling routine even more athletic than the one in the museum earlier in the day. Has pole dancing become the art world’s new obsession?
Dinner took place on the road above the slaughterhouse, at a table set for all three hundred, an amenable tradition that Joannou established three years ago, when Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton were the exhibiting artists. (Urs Fischer will do the honors next year.) Here, there were several entertainments: Curators Massimiliano Gioni and Francesco Bonami traded penguin jokes, for example, and the irrepressible whip cracker put out lit cigarettes with his weapon. Inside the slaughterhouse, a slightly different version of Aitken’s film played on small monitors set into the black mirrors with which he had covered the walls and ceiling, creating a sense of infinity and cohesion that by most estimations the staged show lacked.
The idea, Aitken told me later, was to evoke a dematerialized world where a person becomes a vehicle of distribution, communicating only in textlike fragments. “Our responsibility as artists is to experiment, not to fulfill expectations,” he said, adding that he wanted people in the audience to assemble the fragments for themselves and “sort out the system we’re living in.” Perhaps this was too much work for the vacationing viewers. Scrolling through their BlackBerrys and iPhones, Twittering their impressions, they certainly mirrored Aitken’s theme, moving between a continuing cycle of biennials, art fairs, and other events, exchanging short bursts and drifting into the sunset.
GIVEN THE MANY OUTRAGEOUS SPECTACLES that have occurred on the stages of Performance Space 122—the bodily liquids spilled, the obscenities flung about, the highly questionable (and perhaps illegal) acts—it’s funny to think that one of the most memorable events in the final days of its present incarnation was utterly conventional: a wedding ceremony.
The vows were exchanged Friday evening, installment two of the four-night Old School 122 Benefit, the culmination of P.S. 122’s thirtieth anniversary and the last shebang before the East Village institution vacates during the long-planned, multiyear renovations that will remake the building from top to bottom. The ceremony, which was witnessed by a packed house and conducted by self-proclaimed “Reverend of the Church of the Avant-Garde” Salley May, came midshow and right after the theater erupted in long, raucous cheers over the announcement that New York had legalized gay marriage.
“They love each other and now they will be married, because they love each other, and they can,” May triumphantly declared. “And where did it happen?”
“P.S. 122!” the crowd yelled back.
“How do we top that?” Covelli said, shaking his head.
“What else can we legalize?” Medlyn asked.
I arrived late that night, just in time to catch a dance mashup (with witty play-by-play) led by Jennifer Miller and Jennifer Monson. Everyone was on the floor, bodies piling up with beautiful awkwardness—Michelson’s dress was hiked up, her underwear was plumber-style, and any notion of an organized performance was out the window. “Chaos reigns!” Vallejo Gantner, P.S. 122’s artistic director, happily declared. All seemed right with the downtown universe.
Of course, “downtown” hasn’t really existed, either as an artistic style or a geographic reality, for years. And now P.S. 122, one of the last remnants of the East Village’s 1980s glory days (“pre-smug,” as Miller might have called it), is going to be homeless for an estimated three years, which can be translated to who knows how long. (When the city is in charge of the construction project, the only certainty is that everything will take longer and cost more than anyone’s worst nightmare scenario.) Programming will continue, off-site around and outside of New York City, but Saturday night, as one attendee said, felt like “being at a memorial.”
Left: Artist Julie Atlas Muz. Right: Dancers for Sally Silvers.
The purpose of going “old school” was to turn back time for a few days, and take a nostalgia-fueled victory lap around the block. This occasionally worked too well: Entering the pop-up lounge on the first-floor theater, with Lori E. Seid presiding over the turntables and playing tracks like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as small clusters of people drifted around drinking out of plastic cups, felt like stumbling into a junior high dance. (Needless to say, there was alcohol in those cups, flowing ever more freely as the nights progressed.)
There was, indeed, a sense of reunion. Everywhere you looked, on stage and in the audience, was performance art, dance and theater and music royalty: Tom Murrin, Kate Valk, John Zorn, David Leslie, Split Britches, Penny Arcade, and Carmelita Tropicana, to name just a few.
“I come by every twenty years just to humiliate myself, see how far I can go,” said David R. White, the former chief of the former Dance Theater Workshop, who now runs The Yard and who emceed the first night with the burlesque art star Julie Atlas Muz. She wore pasties. He wore pasties. Her tassels flew with considerably more ease than his.
But tassels are tame compared to tussling with a dead goat, as Arturo Vidich did this past season on the same stage, in the revival of Them, Ishmael Houston-Jones’s 1986 tour-de-force collaboration with Chris Cochrane and Dennis Cooper. A section of that dance (sans goat) was revived Friday, and the night before Vidich was commanded to improvise like a goat during Yvonne Meier’s offering.
“I love that she asked me to be a fucking goat,” he said. “I’m typecast!”
Only at P.S. 122. And never again, exactly as it was. Saturday night’s lineup concluded with a solo performance of Metamorphosis 2 and, fittingly, Closing, by Philip Glass, as well as, before that, a stirring speech by Mark Russell, the man who, more than any other individual, made this theater what it was, serving as artistic director from 1983 until 2004.
“As I listen to this room now, it’s saying it’s OK,” he said. “As I listen to this room now, it’s saying good-bye.”
“IMAGINE BEING HERE NOW” was the title of the sixth Momentum Biennial in Moss, Norway. Given that many international art-world aficionados had hightailed it home after Art Basel, the show’s name was unusually apropos. I arrived from Berlin last Saturday—too late for the dinner hosted for the artists the night prior, I was sad to discover. But after hearing all about it over breakfast from several hungover curators and artists who were experiencing the consequences of the local drinks—with such appetizing names as “Brown Cow” and “Blow Job”—my remorse quickly turned to happy relief.
The biennial originally began as a strictly Nordic affair, but the 2011 edition consists of artists from all over the world (though a large percentage still originate in the region). The fifty contributors were brought together by a team of five young curators, one from each of the Scandinavian countries: Markús Thór Andrésson (Iceland), Christian Skovbjerg Jensen (Denmark), Theodor Ringborg (Sweden), Aura Seikkula (Finland), and Marianne Zamecznik (Norway). The little town of Moss, situated in a beautiful rural landscape (which is also, due to the city’s cellulose factory, known for a rather horrid smell), had a rare moment in the spotlight in the country’s largest morning paper, Aftenposten, with one headline going so far as to claim that “Moss Beats Venice”—something about the former being more “interesting.” This headline was, of course, picked up by both the local mayor and the Norwegian minister of culture, Anniken Huitfeldt, who couldn’t help but boast about it in their respective opening speeches at Galleri F15, one of the three venues of the biennial, much to the amusement of the more jaded (ahem) art audience.
Ringborg advised us to “come back in 2061,” when the time capsules made by Raqs Media Collective are expected to be exhumed. This proleptic teaser served as a reminder that we also had to use our imagination to “see” other works included in the exhibition: There was, for example, the Danish art group Wooloo, who proposed to leave the garden at Galleri F15 untouched for two years. Their request for an “anti-intervention” was denied by the local politicians, who feared an invasion of adders and ticks, and in fact prompted a new local law requiring that all communal lawns in Moss be cut every Friday afternoon.
Then there was Katarina Löfström’s contribution, which called for one large firework “bomb” to be lit at midnight of the opening day. The local police dismissed the proposal: “The sleep of the inhabitants of Moss is far more important than a single piece of art,” they (perhaps reasonably) decided. “Who cannot but concur with the police’s conclusion?” Löfström asked with a hint of mirth. The most exclusive work must have been the one belonging to the artist group Sex Tags. It was so “secret” that only five or six people had the opportunity to actually see the space: a room, connected to the main exhibition hall, which is not technically allowed to be used because of fire code. Performance pieces by Prinz Gholam, Roi Vaara, and Singaporean artist Heman Chong also made an impact.
But the most intriguing curatorial intervention involved the spatial experience of the main venue, Kunsthalle Momentum. Norwegian artist Øystein Aasan and curator Zamecznik collaborated on an architectural labyrinth wherein works are presented in thirty small white cubes, so that the viewer is only able to see one artist’s work at a time. The layout was supposedly meant to imitate the intimacy of the encounter with work in an artist’s studio. Trying to find my way around, I felt like a mouse trapped in a maze. The clean hang within the little cubes didn’t do much to simulate the artist’s studio, though, where production is emphasized over result, and I instead found myself looking for the kind of geographical info tags you find in booths at fairs. But as curator Carson Chan points out in the title for his article in the Momentum reader, “Space, Not Art, Is the Curator’s Primary Material.” One can see the advantages a smaller, peripheral biennial has over a more central exhibition: The degree of playful experimentation can be higher—unless the local police put a halt to it, that is.
Left: Sabrina van der Ley, director of Oslo's National Museum. Right: Sex Tags member Stefan Mitterer.
IN THAT “DEAD” WEEK between Venice and Basel, what did you do? Did you follow the 2011 art bus to Berlin or Città della Pieve? Retreat to Geneva, Milan, Helsinki, Bedford? If you were lucky, perhaps you spent the entr’acte in London, saw Michael Clark’s premiere of th in the Tate Turbine Hall and a Mark Leckey performance at the Serpentine, attended a Dennis Cooper–divined group show (“The Weaklings”) at Five Years Gallery in Regent Studios, immersed yourself in Stuart Comer’s screening of Community Action Center, etc. . . .
“Like one long evening,” as John Tremblay put it.
Then, on the plane to Switzerland, you might have read from John Kelsey’s collected essays, Rich Texts, out now on Sternberg Press. Listened to some xclusv Ghe20 Goth1k mix on your new Bose QuietComfort 15 acoustic noise-canceling headphones, which somehow cost twice as much as the easyJet flight (even with Speedy Boarding). Caught up with the Art Basel piece in easyJet magazine, where the author “rounds up five of the hottest tickets” around the fair: Andre Butzer, Sudarshan Shetty, Lisa Oppenheim, Mattis Leiderstam, and Mai-Thu Perret. “It’s probably the best fair in the world in terms of quality,” Perret advises in the pull quote, which is as far as you get before it’s time to deplane.
“We all have something to sell at the fair,” Marc Spiegler later observed. “Quality” art to match “quality” homes. To match quality shoes, products, and lifestyle.
Left: Swiss Institute director and Art Unlimited 2012 curator Gianni Jetzer. Right: Art Basel directors Annette Schönholzer and Marc Spiegler.
But on Tuesday, at the opening of the forty-second edition of the big fair, it was all about quantity. It’s by now an old adage that there are more VIPs than non-VIPs ticking around Basel, just as it’s axiomatic that “art’s the new rock ’n’ roll,” which I was told over and over as we squeezed through the throngs. How’d we all end up with a backstage pass? Anyway, the only rock-star artist around was Cerith Wyn Evans, the latest Marc Jacobs muse whose wit always arrives long before the staircase and who also happened to have the best dinner of the week (at Osteria Acqua on Monday).
“People ask, ‘Why year after year do you go to Art Basel?’ Art Basel! How could you not?” Mera Rubell parsed it out at Eva Presenhuber’s booth. “Here you see things you must have or else. Look at that Franz West moment over there.”
YOU WANT IT
YOU NEED IT
YOU BUY IT
YOU FORGET IT
read her Barbara Kruger tote.
Our memories are always being tested here, but among the (momentarily) unforgettable: Henrik Oleson and R. H. Quaytman at Daniel Buchholz; Laura Owens at Sadie Coles and Gavin Brown; Richard Aldrich at Bortolami, Trisha Donnelly at Presenhuber and Casey Kaplan; Adrián Villar Rojas at Ruth Benzacar; Matias Faldbakken at Standard (Oslo) and Simon Lee; Ai Weiwei at neugerriemschneider. “We have to keep the story in the public’s memory,” Burkhard Riemschneider said.
Left: Dealers David Kordansky and Stuart Krimko. Right: Artist R. H. Quaytman.
“Whose cum?” asked Team Gallery’s Miriam Katzeff.
“It’s not important. I’m using ‘cum’ loosely here. I mean shit.”
Kordansky shook his head.
That night, Thea Westreich was sitting next to me at the dinner thrown by Standard (Oslo) and Johann König at Ristorante Roma. “You’re a dude,” she told Standard’s Eivind Furnesvik. “You’re a clever, smart, sexy guy. But you also know how to communicate the context of a work. I’m tired of hearing who bought something or for how much. Fuck it! That doesn’t tell me anything about whether it’s a great work of art.”
We were eating our grilled turbotin with lemon sauce and debating the hive mind of collectors, the bloodbath of the auctions. “It’s possible that there are people out there thinking on their own, calibrating things according to their own intellect,” Thea’s husband, Ethan Wagner, considered, shaking his head. “If there aren’t, I give up.”
We finished our tiramisu and walked across the Rhine to the Kunsthalle’s Campari Bar, which was loud and boisterous as ever, a distinct counterpoint to the armed guards who stood at the entrance. Didn’t remember seeing those last year. Furnesvik perked up as he regarded the crowd: “To have a really global network you need a delimited space where you can interact, yearly. It’s here”—looking around, making eye contact—“where we renegotiate trust.”
Left: Artist Christian Marclay and curator Lydia Yee. Right: Dealer Roland Augustine.
I’m not sure what was being negotiated at the “intimate” dinner for two hundred cohosted by Tina Brown, Wendi Murdoch, Dasha Zhukova, and Credit Suisse chairman Urs Rohner at the Fondation Beyeler the next evening, but I at least enjoyed the “variation of chocolate with raspberries, lychees and paprika” prepared by “Chef, Restaurateur and Author” Ivo Adam, and the iteration of Christian Marclay’s Shuffle performed by Maya Homburger, Hans Koch, and Okkyung Lee. With so many names inscribed in the glossy menu-catalogue, it was hard to know who was being celebrated, launched, or stuffed in our mouths.
The meal was “in honor of” Marclay, who looked a bit fatigued. “Ever since the video came out it’s been a whirlwind of events like this,” he said, before pausing for a photo op with Zhukova. The schizophrenic dinner also doubled as a plug for Zhukova and Murdoch’s new Pandora-inspired website, Art.sy. Developed by Carter Cleveland, a photogenic twenty-four-year-old Princeton grad (“our Mark Zuckerburg,” they called him), the site functions as an “aggregation system” that divvies up art according to cross-referenced “attributes” (“Pictures Generation”; “New York School”; images “with cows in it,” according to The Observer), and lets viewers browse those works that have been lucky enough to get uploaded into the “genome.” Giacometti was notably absent from the iMac demo; Aaron Young was not. It’s an addictive-looking, pajama-friendly environment with some press-release “context” to give it an “educational” veneer. (A cynic might argue that learning is really about the acquisition of new stupidities, not just a perpetual filling-in-the-blanks.) The site appears to privilege more saleable works, i.e., “2D” things with high-contrast graphics: Warhol will continue to reign even in the twenty-first-century art school/mall. It seemed an incongruous match for Marclay, whose twenty-four-hour video The Clock, probably the most celebrated work of the past year, is the kind of art the site seems least prepared to apprehend.
So maybe someday people won’t have to go to art fairs or galleries or leave their art-filled houses at all. Though if they do, they can always get the iPhone app. One form of capitalist streamlining is integrated into or maybe overwrites another, the anesthetic ceremonies of the “art festival,” as Jack Smith called it, blending or giving way to the anesthetic ritual of the swipe-and-pinch. Thank goodness we lose all that “intimidating” sociality along the way.
I boarded the 6 tram with Will Ferrell and the Rubells and headed back toward the Messeplatz. Art Basel has its “moments,” one might point out, but there are all these people to talk to and unwieldy things to manage and at some point your Robert Kinmont Source Support is leaking all over the floor and the Swiss have swept up all the cigarette ashes under your vintage David Hammons chandelier and you’re bussing the cheeks of total strangers in the streets and you realize you’ve been too long at the fair.
And it’s time to go home.
“YOU MUST HAVE more respect for Switzerland’s traditions!” curator Beatrix Ruf thundered to no one in particular, inadvertently flicking cigarette ash onto the Giacometti-designed tables of the fumoir in the fabled Kronenhalle bar, where the pre-Baselites had gathered last Thursday to observe the Swiss in their natural habitat.
They put on quite a show. On one couch, David Weiss placidly perused a newspaper, immune to repeated interruptions from Valentin Carron, who kept sticking his head over the page to comment. Another couch overflowed with art students who had gathered to celebrate the opening of Thomas Julier and Cedric Eisenring at the plucky Karma International gallery earlier that evening. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster traded notes with some of the young artists, who had been working on a hybrid cinema space conceptually akin to the one the French artist was to inaugurate the following day at Kunsthalle Zürich. Staples like Sam Keller and Eva Presenhuber put in cameos. “Normally I’m the last to leave,” the latter begged off. “But tonight I must sleep. You all understand what this week demands.”
Amid all the traffic, an old-timey black phone offered a direct line to the bar downstairs (just dial 911), though the bartenders had quit taking orders from it for fear that the influx of art students would mean an enormous unpaid tab. It did. “This place is the most beautiful thing about Zurich,” Ruf continued, turning toward the Karma crowd. “Don’t fuck it up!” Having already paid for our own drinks at the bar proper, we ducked out the door before the berating could escalate. (It did.) “The funny thing is, part of the history of this bar is that artists come here and skip out on their bills,” New Jerseyy’s Emanuel Rossetti mused. “I mean, they even kind of brag about that in the book they published. It is the tradition.”
Zurich has become a routine stopover for those headed to Basel, but these days “Swiss traditions” are not so easy to track—and not just because of young Turks like Karma, Paloma Presents, or Everest. Traditional giants Hauser & Wirth, Migros Museum, and Presenhuber have all recently relocated to the art-world enclave around the decidedly untraditional Prime Tower, the city’s solitary skyscraper and currently the tallest building in Switzerland.
Friday, I explored the area, beginning with Presenhuber’s sprawling exhibition “Sculpture Now,” which mingled the likes of Urs Fischer and Richard Prince with Oscar Tuazon and Alex Hubbard. If I could whistle, I probably would have: not just at the impressive conglomeration of objects, but also at the sheer number of dealers in attendance—Rachel Lehmann, Tony Shafrazi, and Gavin Brown among them. “Of course there’re a lot of dealers. It’s a twenty-seven-artist group show,” a friend reminded me.
One floor up, Peter Kilchmann offered works by Artur Żmijewski and Hernan Bas, who had modeled a suite of photographs after the Cottingley fairies. Paper cutouts frolicked in the woods or perched dreamily on rocks by a stream. Bas’s eyes sparkled as he explained. “There are people who look at my work and just see a bunch of fairies. So I figured, you want fairies? I’ll give you fairies.”
The crowds eventually funneled into a massive hall in a separate part of the complex for another tradition, the annual Zurich Art Dinner. After a quick once-over of the crowd, we retreated to Kronenhalle for Hauser & Wirth’s elegant supper for Rodney Graham, where Iwan Wirth saluted Graham’s show (“masterpiece after masterpiece”) and Graham himself—“A hell of an artist, and very good-looking too!” The Rodney Graham Band had originally been slated to headline the afterparty at the Helsinki Club, but some of its members were double-booked, so the artist tried his hand at the DJ booth instead, with the help of some Italian 45s from the 1960s and club fixture Tamara Rist (sister to Pipilotti and Tommy, who owns the place).
Sunday morning, we trekked to the Aargauer Kunsthaus to catch Mai-Thu Perret’s show and performance before returning to Zurich to enjoy tofu sausage (Alpine vegetarians rejoice!) at the pop-up space for Everest. There, artists Emil Michael Klein and Greg Parma Smith presented a smart treatise on technique that curator Piper Marshall had coltishly titled “Dick Blick meets Herr Boessner.” The conversation around craft continued at the Ruf-run Kunsthalle Zurich, where “Town-Gown Conflict,” a Lucy McKenzie–initiated group show, lifted up the skirts of the academic gown: schoolgirl meets social critique.
The Kunsthalle opening dissolved into another undisputed Zurich tradition: the mythic Maja Hoffmann dinner. I opted instead for cheap beer and pricey takeout at Helvetiaplatz before heading to Longstreet Bar for an all-nighter featuring music from artist Jan Vorisek and DJ Yung Bukakke (spiked with a last-minute set by McKenzie and crew). Clearly the force to be reckoned with on the Zurich scene, the club offered an excellent vantage point on Langstrasse, a street known for a kind of Swiss tradition best not mentioned in the parlors of the Kronenhalle.
Monday, I slumped off the train in Basel and toward the Messeplatz for the kickoff of Art Unlimited. This year, architectural shifts amplified the sense of space in Hall 2, but those searching for impact to match the new scale were a bit frustrated—unless they weren’t paying enough attention while navigating Kendell Geers’s field of bricks.
From there we went to Liste, the “Young Art Fair” that should probably stop calling itself that. The sultry weather only intensified the fair’s notorious issues with circulation—both of the air and of the visitors, who had to squeeze past one another in the high school–esque hallways, endangering the ubiquitous examples of what dealer Darren Flook termed “art that leans.” Just then, our beer-garden reverie was pierced by what sounded like a gunshot or—more likely—a work down. “It’s a dangerous genre,” Flook muttered, shaking his head.
Tuesday morning brought the opening of the big fair and a “covert” e-flux project, whose “super-secret” agenda included a full-page feature in the Art Newspaper, mock VIP cards, and nebulous directions that led to a clandestine destination . . . directly next door to the main fair. I decided to save my strength for Kim Seob Boninsegni’s opening at New Jerseyy and the block-party bash that was sure to follow.
Kim’s Pink Floyd–derived exhibition title, “We Are Only Coming Through in Waves,” pretty much fit the scene outside the modest gallery space at New Jerseyy, where throngs had taken over the better part of the platz. Guests had long since drained the gallery’s libation reservoirs and began to migrate toward the nearby gas station, forming an impromptu VIP lounge. Inside, I compared beer options with artist Tyler Dobson, critic Karen Archey, and French curators Mathieu Copeland and Matthieu Poirier. “This may be the best dinner I’ve had all week,” Poirier grinned, picking the most promising-looking baguette out of a basket.
My evening could have ended there, with the mass feeding frenzy at the neighborhood pizza place (a New Jerseyy trademark). After all, I had already sworn backward and forward that this year I wouldn’t end up “back on the boat”—the notorious annual Le Baron party hosted by Emmanuel Perrotin. Nevertheless, a cocktail or two later I found myself leaning against the Das Schiff DJ booth, bobbing along to Oh La La! band beside Takashi Murakami. Maybe some traditions are just too strong to break.
I WAS JUST GETTING my sea—nay, canal—legs when I suddenly found myself disembarking in Berlin last Tuesday for the controversy-knows-no-bounds mega-exhibition based in . . . well, you know. After Venice’s art marathon, I should have known that the running wouldn’t stop just because I had landed in the sober (?) north. To be sure, the exhibition’s organizers took on Berlin’s geographic largess with relish: The six-week show spreads over a labyrinthine main space in the Atelierhaus at Monbijoupark, art studios soon to be torn down, and four other assorted venues of varying elegance—Kunst-Werke Berlin, Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, and the Berlinische Galerie. The political fury surrounding the project is well known and, by now, writ (quickly: It is a pet political project of Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s; critics derided its necessity and the 1.6 million euros allotted for it) so I won’t go into it here. Let’s keep it light, shall we?
Suffice to say, all was merry at the afternoon VIP conference, where Wowereit, the show’s godfathers/advisers (Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, and the lovely Christine Macel), and the show’s actual young curators (Angelique Campens, Fredi Fischli, Magdalena Magiera, Jakob Schillinger, and Scott Cameron Weaver), as well as assorted other notables and incorrigibles, gathered for canapés and toasts in the sunshine. Or so I heard; in an early-summer daze, I missed my initial flight to Berlin and ended up just making the opening in Monbijoupark, which on first look appeared more like a rock concert than an opening. As Weaver fetched me from my cab, jauntily wearing Michael Stipe’s name tag since he had lost his own, I saw thousands of kids and elders thronging the grassy fields surrounding the space, throwing back beers in the night heat.
I greeted artists Nairy Baghramian and Tobias Kaspar, Silberkuppe directors Dominic Eichler and Michel Ziegler, Croy Neilsen’s Oliver Croy, and the Basel Museum für Gegenwartskunst curator Nikola Dietrich, all lounging in front of Mandla Reuter’s Nothing to See Nothing to Hide. Reuter had shown me the pretty plan for it in his studio in Basel a few weeks before, and now I saw it for the blithe and aggressive gesture that it is: He had removed the huge, well-tagged facade windows of the Atelierhaus’s front building, leaving gaping concrete frames and a suddenly pavilion-like room for, well, trashing.
In that spirit, we grabbed some beers and made our way through the crowd to where the exhibition lay in wait. Presciently, it starts with the excellent The Brave, Asaf Koriat’s split-screen video featuring a three-by-three grid, each square offering a “Star-Spangled Banner”–singing diva: Beyoncé, Cher, Mariah, Whitney, Celine, and whatnot. A woman walked by and pointed to a young, lithe Jessica Simpson belting it out. “I don’t know who that one is,” she noted in German to her friend, who simply shrugged.
One wonders whether she could have identified the people in Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda’s brilliantly deft address of the exhibition’s uneasy provenance—a series of photographic portraits of Mayor Wowereit’s former political opponents hung in a narrow hallway, so that they crowded you with both their defeat and their determination. Ouch. So many of the works touch on another political fact about Berlin’s artists—they’re from everywhere but here. Take Trevor Lloyd’s winsome suite of “Mom” drawings, for instance, which illustrates this fact perfectly if shakily. Upon moving to the city, the California-born artist realized that he hadn’t packed a picture of his mother, so he set about drawing a batch—eyes closed, balanced on his head. Obviously.
The next days unfolded in a series of standout works—Shahryar Nashat’s color-soaked Hamburger Bahnhof installation of 1990s-era Super 8 films and sharp color prints of recent sculptural works are gorgeous and moving, as are Keren Cytter’s Avalanche films; Kajsa Dahlberg’s Reclam-printed collation of hand-notated copies of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 A Room of One’s Own is excellent. One night, with everyone already alarmed at the prospect of Art Basel the following week, Macel imitated Basel’s many Ladies of the Art Preview, with their teetering heels and handbags and blackberries dangling from limp wrists. Somehow this morphed into a discussion of ten different kinds of body language that female donkeys—donkeys? no, monkeys, she said—have. Like everything else, it was hilarious and confusing in equal measure.
So were the performances, which popped with welcome alacrity. Jeremy Shaw’s scientific lecture on lasers was perfectly and fantastically unintelligible, until the lights suddenly went down, the green lasers went up, and he began singing “scream like a baby” in Auto-Tune—then it was just awesome. If one unnamed performance had everyone uncertain—even Biesenbach and friend were shaking their heads—Michele Di Menna’s pastel mise-en-scène, in which she and another white-clad beauty arranged quasi-phallic totems while a fishbowl sound track gurgled overhead (actually spa music from Baden-Baden), was another story. It was wonderfully convincing, even if we didn’t know quite what we were being convinced of.
After Di Menna’s performance, a group of us piled into a cab to various destinations that escape me now, where more performing ensued. At one bar, a sleepy man was introduced to me as the “Hans Ulrich Obrist of Berlin.” Later, I tried on Di Menna’s Working Girl white pumps. Perfect fit. Still later, we all made our way to the Angry Chicken, a Korean fried-chicken place with a small club behind a sliding door in the back. As Gerry Bibby and Di Menna broke it down quixotically on the dance floor, someone told me that the smiling DJ, Daniel Wang, would be playing at a party at Art Basel the following week. It is a small world after all.
My last evening in Berlin found me hopscotching to openings around town: Nick Mauss’s inspired curatorial endeavor at Galerie Neu featured works by Lukas Duwenhögger, Birgit Megerle, Katharina Wulff, and Amelie von Wulffen, all of whom took the same jazzy poems as their point of departure. Next stop was the new Esther Schipper space, featuring a wonderfully lucid and spare Ceal Floyer solo. After drinks in the garden downstairs, we made our way to the Spree-side Grill Royal for the gallery dinner, where I sat down with frieze d/e editor Jennifer Allen and artists Christoph Keller and Monica Bonvincini in voluminous chairs that immediately made everyone feel like they were sitting at the kids’ table. Allen whipped out her iPhone to show us all the pavilions from Venice that I had missed and pretty soon Keller was declaring himself a “cultural relativist,” but sweetly. After chatting with Floyer outside a bit about her show, I begged off, claiming too many recent nights seeing the sun rise. Allen raised an acerbic eyebrow and noted: “Well, the sun rises at 4:00 AM here, so . . . ” True, but Art Basel was rustling just outside the door. It was time to get some sleep, long northern summer days (midsummer night’s dreams?) or no.
VENICE MAY BE one of the most romantic places in the world, but during preview week of its Biennale, it is as infuriating as it is magical. The best-laid plans go awry, only to be rescued from disaster by serendipitous happenstance. Getting around without a hideously expensive water taxi is, as artist Rashid Johnson put it one evening, “a nightmare,” while traveling the Grand Canal on a vaporetto overloaded with sweating tourists is a very special kind of hell.
Yet this year’s behemoth Biennale offered an embarrassment of riches as well—emphasis on the rich. The profligate display of wealth was second only to the naked representation of vanity, not a sin in Venice but something akin to an art. The actual art––ostensibly the reason for this gathering of tribes from a record eighty-nine participating countries––too often played the supporting role usually relegated to the art world’s social structure. Then again, the wealth was shared so benevolently, and in so many soigné corners of the Veneto, that one could only be grateful to Planet Art for its celebratory nature whenever the soul went adrift in the maze.
“Something definitely happened this year,” dealer Lorcan O’Neill observed on Thursday, after a night of enough parties to sink the city. “It’s all now so big, so full of . . . ” He didn’t have to say what. Repeatedly, conversations began not with “What did you see today?” but “Where are you going tonight?”—and continued with talk of whether last night’s dinner had been seated or circulatory, in a palazzo or a hotel, on an island or a yacht, and of how many soirees one could take before falling into a canal with her fanny hanging out––the trauma that befell one New York dealer who was briefly the talk of the town.
Left: Artist Rashid Johnson. Right: Artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla with Isa.
There were plenty of other tongue waggers during the week, like the afternoon an armed flotilla ferried Shimon Peres up the Grand Canal after he cut the ribbon on Sigalit Landau’s show in the Israeli pavilion. Or the moment in the American pavilion when Allora & Calzadilla’s pipe organ–ATM rejected a certain Chelsea dealer’s debit card. And the night that the American artist duo, after being fêted right and left, forgot to attend their Hugo Boss–sponsored dinner after their Hugo Boss–sponsored cocktail at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. “We got confused,” they said. Small wonder. That’s Venice.
There was plenty of art to raise temperatures as well as hackles. The censorship by the Azerbaijani government of the work by Aidan Salakhova in that country’s pavilion, for instance. The startling films of the late Christoph Schlingensief in the German pavilion, remade into a church with an enlarged photograph of an anus for a rosette. Or the outdoor glass-blowing performance by Gelitin at the back of the Arsenale, where one naked artist submitted to some rear-action noodling by one of his colleagues, while another danced to the music of a hardcore band. “This restores my faith in art,” said a happy Anne Pasternak. “Sometimes,” the Creative Time director added, “the art world is a little too precious.”
When I arrived last Sunday evening, however, La Serenissima was still serene. The streets were so empty that only the banners announcing exhibitions around town hinted at the madness at hand. Until, that is, I ran across Vito Schnabel and his sister Stella. “Come to my party for the Bruce High Quality Foundation tomorrow night,” Vito said. When tomorrow came, however, it was Julian Schnabel who headed the agenda.
The burly artist-director was lunching that Monday with Angela Westwater and Rula Jebreal, among others, at the Hotel Monaco, where I was attending dealer Frederico Sève’s toast to the Latin American artists in the Biennale. After lunch, Schnabel led a private tour of an impressive forty-year retrospective of his paintings that Norman Rosenthal had organized for the magnificent Museo Correr, on a nearly pigeon-free San Marco. Norman Foster, Annie Cohen-Solal, and Jacqueline Schnabel joined the show’s admirers, though the most ardent may have been Schnabel himself. “Look at the way the paint lies on this surface,” he said at one point. “I think that’s pretty nifty.” This was not all braggadocio. “Julian is a very great artist,” Rosenthal confided. “But he is also his own worst enemy.”
On my exit, I ran into Lisa Phillips, Izhar Patkin, Shannon Ebner, Anne Ellegood, and RoseLee Goldberg in such short order that I knew the troops were massing for the invasion. Ebner was heading to the Biennale’s Ca’ Giustinian on the Grand Canal, where she had installed a glowing ampersand sculpture on a balcony. I followed, only to come abreast of a phalanx of Italians––Masimilliano Gioni, Cecilia Alemani, Francesco Bonami, and Maurizio Cattelan––rushing off to destinations unknown. (Rumor had it that Cattelan, whose stuffed pigeons sat atop the Biennale’s international pavilion, was the one responsible for the dearth of live birds in San Marco.)
And so the bacchanal began.
Tuesday found Venice free of vaporetto traffic as well as pigeons, when drivers went on a one-day strike and everyone––and I mean everyone––took to the labyrinthine streets as if called to revolution. Tuesday was also press day at the Palazzo Grassi, to which I raced after learning that François Pinault was providing taxi service to the first Biennale preview in the Giardini, the only day one could get through Mike Nelson’s crawl spaces in the British pavilion without waiting on a very long line.
Some curmudgeons expressed disappointment with what they perceived as Bice Curiger’s submission to overscaled festival art when, as one put it, “If she had just done ten years of Parkett covers, it would have been the perfect Biennale.” More forgiving observers pointed to the thoughtful formality of “ILLUMInations,” excepting her show’s gag-worthy title. Others shook their heads over the plethora of puzzlelike presentations by Nelson, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Markus Schinwald, though Schinwald’s Austrian pavilion handed out the sexiest tote bags, which had the look of black negligee.
As twilight fell, and the hangers-on rushed off to parties, I wandered into a group of interns from the Peggy Guggenheim on their way to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco for the opening of a film installation by Oleg Kulik that I couldn’t quite make out. All over the upstairs walls and ceiling of this astonishing palace, however, were the sixty Tintoretto paintings that have set this place apart. Seeing it was one of the unexpected highlights of my week––worth getting lost for, this time in the Dorsoduro while attempting to find the Hauser & Wirth boat party.
Just when I thought I would faint from hunger, who should emerge from the darkness other than Glenn Lowry and his crew from MoMA––Kathy Halbreich, Klaus Biesenbach, Leah Dickerman, and Laura Hoptman––escaping the prolonged Indianapolis Museum dinner for Allora & Calzadilla. “We’re going for pizza and gelatos,” Hoptman said, and sweeter words were never spoken.
Wednesday was my first visit to the Arsenale, which felt just like home when Naomi Campbell strode by with Peter Brant and Rudolf Stingel. Inside, Stingel was appearing in the form of a larger-than-life burning candle by Urs Fischer, who paired it with a monumental taper replicating Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Though many claimed not to care for its pronounced theatricality, judging by the number of camera phones aimed at the installation, Fischer provided the Biennale with its most crowd-pleasing image, even if Christian Marclay’s addictive film The Clock did take the top prize.
Throughout the day, I was told I had to see Karla Black’s Scottish pavilion, Frances Stark’s video in the Arsenale, Erwin Wurm’s Gepetto-like house by the Accademia bridge, Yael Bartana’s return-the-Jews-to-Poland film at the Polish pavilion, the late Ahmed Basiony’s video documentation of the Cairo uprising in the Egyptian pavilion, and especially Bjarne Melgaard’s wild ride in the Norwegian. Oddly, no one mentioned Haroon Mirza, the Brit who would win the Silver Lion for best young artist.
After asking directions from a group of white-robed nuns, I found my way to the cloister near the Rialto bridge where Sadie Coles, Carol Greene, and an absent Gavin Brown were holding a dinner that proved Venice to be the one city in Italy where good food is hard to find. But Sturtevant, who was to receive a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement, was a hoot and a half, especially when she enthused over traveling from Hong Kong to Venice in Pinault’s private plane. “It has bedrooms!” she exclaimed. “I never want to fly commercial again.”
Back on the street, Pruitt and I picked up Richard Phillips and Josephine Meckseper for a short water taxi ride to Palazzo Zen in San Polo, where Lisa Spellman’s party for Mike Nelson was going so full-throttle that a brother from another planet might think it was the only game in town. But it wasn’t. Hopping another taxi with Yvonne Force and Doreen Remen, we sped across the lagoon to Isola San Servolo, where Cattelan was giving what he had advertised as “the worst party ever” for Toilet Paper number three––and he wasn’t kidding. We didn’t stay long. We couldn’t. Amy Sacco’s Venetian version of Bungalow 8 was singing its siren song, but by that time I just wanted to curl up with a book. Death in Venice seemed appropriate.
But the fun was just beginning. The next day included a morning repast with Marina Abramović and Ulay at the Montenegro pavilion, a tour of the Museo Fortuny with PIN-UP editor Felix Burrichter, and a lunch at the Peggy Guggenheim, where Toby Webster, Jeremy Deller, Monika Sosnowska, and Andrew Hamilton swept me off the Astroturf to race through the sanitized Punta della Dogana. Only a pause for a gelato shored me up for the Prada Foundation’s opening in the glam Ca’ Corner della Regina, which one dealer termed “Miuccia’s revenge on Pinault.” And how.
This was the night of a thousand parties, the night it all got to be too much. After touching base at the Peggy Guggenheim, where Maxwell Anderson presided over the reception for Allora & Calzadilla, it was off to the W magazine party for the Starn Twins’ vertiginous Big Bambu, which I resisted climbing. There wasn’t time. Massimo De Carlo’s dinner at the sumptuous Palazzo Brandolini had begun. “It’s so nice here,” said Pruitt. “I don’t want to leave.” Did we really have to go to the Bauer, or the Pinchuk Foundation party at Palazzo Papadopoli, or the Israeli party back at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco? Wasn’t life supposed to be about something more than the next party? On the other hand, perhaps it couldn’t get better than this.
But it did, on Friday, when I had the best meal of the week, thanks to Barbara Gladstone’s curator- and artist-heavy lunch on the Danieli terrace; loved everything in the far end of the Arsenale; and topped the day off with Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp’s all-night dance party on Isola le Vignole, which for many was the most down-to-earth fun of the week, though I did finally make it to the top of Big Bambu. I also bumped into Courtney Love outside the Palazzo Contarini degli Scrigni, where Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miro had installed “Venice in Venice,” a stellar show of 1960s works by California artists. “Artforum?” Love said. “My grandfather founded that magazine!” Huh?
Hours later, those hanging around the palazzo for her performance in the garden would (surprise!) have a long wait, because Love was a few doors down at the Palazzo Polignac with journalist Jefferson Hack, watching Marianne Faithfull turn the heads of Maja Hoffmann, Anita and Poju Zabludowicz, Cindy Sherman, Tom Eccles, Richard Chang, Franz West, Andreas Gursky, and a few hundred other guests of Larry Gagosian.
“I recorded that song almost fifty years ago,” Faithfull said, after making “As Tears Go By” sound like a dream. “And people are still asking me stupid questions about Mick Jagger. Who gives a shit?” “It’s all about Keith now,” yelled one kibitzer. “No it isn’t,” retorted the salty chanteuse. “It’s all about me!”
The room erupted in cheers. Everyone understood. The week could not have had a more fitting epitaph.
I DON’T KNOW HOW other people prepare for a Venice Biennale, but to brace for the fifty-fourth edition, I stopped off in Rotterdam. Two words will explain the trip: Elmgreen and Dragset. Thanks to “The One and the Many,” the dynamic duo’s living theater of an exhibition in the bleak Dutch city, I had a taste of the carnival to come. If the May 27 private view of their show lacked the celebrification that infected the Venetian lagoon like the mad cow of social disease, it created a scene where, for once, the disenfranchised outranked the self-entitled.
Instead of Courtney Love––suddenly the art world’s It Girl––it had male hustlers and a frighteningly realistic infant abandoned at a dusty ATM. Instead of bright and shiny fabrications framed by Tintorettos, it featured a Dumpster piled with Flemish art books and a four-story, prefabricated concrete apartment house straight out of the former DDR. And instead of taking on a national pavilion (as they had in the 2009 Biennale), the artists staked a claim to a vast, harborside shed that once housed submarines and cruise ships.
Submarine Wharf is now an art site operated by the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in partnership with the port of Rotterdam, a city that is unusually friendly to scabrous public sculpture. A group of candy-colored Franz West turds, for example, decorated the grassy bank of a canal across the street from my hotel. On a pedestrian plaza a block away sat Paul McCarthy’s enormous bronze Santa with Butt Plug. “They were expecting a Christmas tree,” a chortling Michael Elmgreen told me. “And so they believe it is.”
He didn’t tell me that an actual tree would figure in The One and the Many at the wharf, a fifteen-minute water taxi ride away. Nor could I have guessed that I would start the evening by climbing into a cage on the creaky white Ferris wheel in the show with Matthew Day Jackson, getting a bird’s-eye view of the bad neighborhood the artists had constructed below. “This is pretty fantastic,” said Jackson, who had come for the opening from Amsterdam with Adam Helms and Helms’s Dutch dealer, Jorg Grimm.
As an artwork that confused the illusory with the real, it was also pretty convincing. A “blind” accordion player sat at the entrance of a long, corrugated aluminum tunnel leading into the murky dark of the space. The curving walls of its graffiti-smeared interior, which looked something like a passageway in a London tube station, were hung with public service posters advertising both the show and the premiere of The Light at the End of the Tunnel, a fake reality TV series.
In the space beyond, a nighttime street scene was unfolding. Mechanics (actors from Rotterdam’s Ro Theater) were stripping a white limousine while two hustlers (also actors) made aggressive moves on male guests checking out a construction trailer tricked out as a public toilet. “That guy really freaked me out!” said publicist Brian Phillips, emerging wide-eyed from the trailer. A young woman pushing a baby carriage while conducting a loud argument on her cell phone initially had me just as fooled. Other guests, such as MUSAC director Agustin Pérez Rubio and artist Simon Fujiwara, sat beside her on a park bench without ever realizing she was playacting.
Left: Artist Jeroen Doorenweerd with Dees Linders, director of Sculpture International Rotterdam. Right: Collector Vincente Amigo and MUSAC director Agustin Pérez Rubio.
The locked apartment house was the same building that the artists first exhibited at ZKM in Karlsruhe last year, only this time the cubicles inside the windows were outfitted with Delftware, hooker lingerie, and found Dutch furniture. A silicone mannequin of a teenage boy lay on his cot in one room, staring at a computer screen where his own image was displayed on Gay Romeo, a chat room that had attracted actual solicitations from men visiting the site. “It's all about exposing your own desires,” Elmgreen said.
At dinner after the preview, Boijmans museum director Sjarel Ex admitted that the €500,000 show had been a challenge for both the museum and the city. “An exhibition like this is always a risk,” he said. “It’s dark, and it comes as a shock. But it has a social-artistic aspect that we liked. And if you have fun organizing things like this, it’s fun to look at too.”
Noon the following day brought us to a decommissioned post office for the unveiling of It’s Never Too Late to Say Sorry, a performance the artists concocted to free the passing populace of whatever burdens of guilt they may shoulder. Scheduled to repeat every day for a year, it employed an actor who proclaimed the title words through a stainless steel megaphone he removed from a glass display case on the site—with remarkably effective results.
After an elaborate, Jennifer Rubell–style lunch at the Boijmans, where I had one of the best museum experiences of my life, it was time for the public opening at the wharf. The weather did not cooperate, but brisk winds, rain, and cold did not deter the people of Rotterdam from turning the pilgrimage into a raucous family outing. When I arrived, there was a long line for the dinky Ferris wheel and a mobile kitchen serving French fries parked on the pier outside. Several people walked away in a huff when they discovered the door to the apartment house was locked. But with so many people mixing with the actors and crowding the toilet, the illusion was mostly lost, replaced by a seedy street fair where the exercise of voyeurism was the only game in town––a perfect prelude to Venice.
THE VENICE BIENNALE may be frequently deemed the Olympics of Art, but one sometimes forgets the workout it provides during the preview, when one finds oneself propelled through three days of palazzo-hopping on a diet of “O”s: prosecco, espresso, and gelato. On Thursday, my first prosecco of the day was at the opening of the Montenegro pavilion, which doubled as a breakfast reception for the Marina Abramović Community Obod. “The thing I love about the name is that it puts the emphasis on community,” curator Svetlana Racanovic ventured. Does it now? Abramović clarified: “It’s not that I want to see my name everywhere, but I understand its power as a brand. When people see it, they know they aren’t getting sculptures, they aren’t getting paintings—it’s about performance.”
Next up was a quick spin around the “TRA” exhibition at Museo Fortuny and then, alas, a longer spin around San Samuele, searching for the vaporetto stop that would take me directly across the water to the Palazzo Papadopoli for the Pinchuk Art Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize. The works of the nineteen finalists—including laureates Cinthia Marcelle and Nicolae Mircea—were lusciously installed throughout, beginning with Katerina Sedá’s whimsical tea party in the front garden, where she served visitors sweets while they stood waist-deep in holes in the ground.
In addition to advocating for emerging artists, Victor Pinchuk has become something of an ambassador for Ukrainian pop music. I cornered him briefly to gush about last Biennale’s concert by the inimitable Verka Serduchka, Russia’s first drag superstar. “The problem is, everyone remembers the party, but no one ever remembers the performer’s name,” he shook his head with a smile. “We’ll try to change that this year.” Before he could elaborate, we were interrupted by the announcement that Elton John had arrived. (People didn’t seem to have much trouble remembering his name as he chatted with nominees Rubens Ochoa, Nico Vascellari, and Nicholas Hlobo.)
Now in the mood for cabaret, I vaporettoed back to the Giardini for Nils Bech’s performance, part of the program of events taking place in and around Oscar Tuazon’s “para-pavilion,” a fresh feature Bice Curiger has introduced into the Biennale. Over at the back end of the Arsenale, artist Loris Gréaud had beached his “Gepetto Pavilion,” an enormous sculpture that offered volunteers the chance to spend twenty-four hours in the belly of a whale. The artist showed me around the all-white interior, sparsely outfitted with a bed, water tank, toilet, and a terrarium with a live cricket. “Wouldn’t you go crazy in there?” I wondered, feeling my heart beat faster the minute the door clicked behind us. “I’m not sure,” the artist confessed, before motioning to his studio manager. “But he spent twenty-six hours here once.” The assistant nodded weakly to confirm. “I talked to the cricket.”
Back outside, I traded whales and crickets for rats. Impresario Vito Schnabel, continuing his quest for art-world domination, had secured Sestiere di Castello, a marvelous palazzo around the corner from the Arsenale. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, and Schnabel père lined the stately inner courtyard, silently regarding Terence Koh, who was lying prostrate in the center, his face suspended over a well for his performance Telling It like It Is. Behind was a sprawling lawn speckled with chill-out zones, picnic blankets, and—naturally—giant inflatable rats (part of Bruce High Quality Foundation’s “Argumenta”). “We’ve been coming here every day,” one of the members of the collective mused. “Just hanging out, playing pickup soccer. It’s amazing how you can forget there’s a Biennale.”
In that moment, I almost did. I was snapped from my reveries, though, by the PR girl, who tramped through the field squawking at the picnickers. “Guys, Terence is leaving now! Come see him go! He’s been there for ten hours—tennn hours!” (Telling it like it is?)
Dashing through exhibitions by Corban Walker and Anton Ginzburg, I arrived at the honeysuckled garden of Palazzo Zen ai Frari for the Hugo Boss dinner. An outburst of rain brought guests including Indianapolis Museum of Art curator Lisa Freiman, Charlotte Sarkozy, and Oleg Baibakov to seek shelter alongside the most elaborate buffet I saw all week. (“Oh, I remember vegetables . . . !” one guest proclaimed, with a triumphant scoop of zucchini.)
Another prosecco down, I returned to Pinchuk for follow-up festivities, where Jeff Koons, Christian Jankowski, and dealer Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst watched the crowd baffled by the Delphic cheerleader/Ukrainian pop phenom Jamila. Dealer Pamela Echeverria and artist Héctor Zamora swore that the headlining Brazilian samba band (whose name I conveniently forgot) was “absolutely not to be missed,” but alas, that was the word on every event that night—particularly the next two on my agenda.
You know a party will be ridiculous when people begin circulating tactical disinvite emails, but no one anticipated the brutality of the scene at the Bauer Hotel, where Dasha Zhukova, Alexander Dellal, and Neville Wakefield were hosting a party in honor of “Commercial Break,” an exhibition of over 130 artists that originally touted a “giant mobile video screen traveling the length of the Grand Canal.” It turned out to be slightly less of a “conspicuous intervention” than the press release promised: In an eerie foreshadowing of future Biennales, the video-barge idea was nixed and the “pavilion for this century” was reconceived as purely an iPad app.
Perhaps the party would have been better experienced virtually as well. Outside the hotel, a mob flocked like moths to the glow of the iPad guest list. Not that being on the list meant much. “Excuse me, I think there is a misunderstanding,” one particularly distinguished guest began. “I’m—”
“They all are,” said the security guard, shoving him to the side.
Past the first doors, we found ourselves somewhat magically in the midst of a John Giorno reading, an unrelated event somehow sandwiched between the PR checkpoints. Revived, we rallied around the next set of doors, where guests pushed their faces against both sides of the glass, pointing in vain at stranded companions. Once past the second ring, the frenzied push for what turned out to be straight Beluga in a cocktail glass and yet another VIP zone would have rendered the situation truly comical, but for the aftertaste of the manhandling at the door. When the security guards at last consented to open the door to let me out, they warned I couldn’t come back. Grazie mille.
Having had more Bauer than I could bear for one evening, I began the trek to Piccolo Mondo for the Gavin Brown/Balice Hertling/Gio Marconi/Herald St. bash. Between the two parties, I got swept up in the massive crowd spilling out of the Giglio bar. Turns out Piccolo Mondo was nearly impossible to get into as well (no small wonder when the roster of hosts alone already exceeded the venue’s tiny capacity).
I cast a wary eye at the lines for drinks at Giglio, spotting artists Wade Guyton, Andro Wekua, and Trisha Donnelly edging to the purportedly closed bar across the piazza. “They’ll still serve us!” Guyton called back. “But they don’t have any ice.” “Va bene,” curator Massimiliano Gioni beamed. “We’ll make our own Piccolo Mondo!”
Another bottle of prosecco down, I decided to try my luck at the real Piccolo Mondo while others left in search of the Bjarne Melgaard “sex party.” It was already 3 AM, but the door was still jammed. “Sir, you don’t know us, but we’re actually very popular,” pleaded the rock-star ingenue pressed against my back. I was only saved by the “conspicuous intervention” of cohost Alexander Hertling. “It’s very important she get in, because . . . ” He paused, fumbling for a reason before blurting out, “She’s my wife!” Maybe not the most appropriate alibi for a club known as the place to pick up sailors, but it worked better than “very popular.”
A spatter of green LED lights swirled over the dance floor, where I squeezed past dealers Darren Flook, Max Wigram, Sylvia Kouvali, and Bridget Donaghue. The Joy Division–laced set list made it all feel like a 1980s music video. “Weird listening to the Cure in Venice,” dealer Eivind Furnesvik observed. “It’s like, can this city get any gloomier?” He paused to reconsider. “Though it’s probably very educational for the city.”
By then, I was past the point of education. What’s more, another grueling workout lay ahead—kicking off with the Paris Triennale breakfast and ending (as if days in Venice ever ended) with Le Baron’s last-minute bash at B Bar. Maybe time for that espresso?
“Courageous . . . ”
“I hate this place.” I heard this more than once, and really, Venice can be such a drag. It’s a town of hyperbole and hubris, the sort of place where you can park your 377-foot megayacht right against the Sestiere Castello and set up a security fence blocking off half the street, detouring the yachtless hoi polloi who have to walk to the Biennale. A place where one might spot guardian snipers in buoys floating in the shallow waters surrounding such yachts. The sort of place from which, just for fun, a prominent collector may fly out several dozen “friends” for a one-night rendezvous at El Bulli. A place where Courtney Love might appear at a party like an apparition, breeze through three tiers of velvet ropes, have a conversation with Michael Stipe and Jay Jopling, and then walk, barefoot, through the broken glass back to her hotel room. “It used to be you’d just go to the Giardini, go to your dinner, go to your afterparty, and then go home,” curator Christian Rattemeyer sighed at that particular party. Did the billionaires ship Miami to Venice?
The Giardini was quiet enough when I arrived on Monday afternoon and began to peek through Bice Curiger’s Biennale, “ILLUMInations.” Mike Nelson had transformed the British pavilion into a rambling, caliginous apartment complex, which broke into a skylit courtyard in the center. Christian Boltanski had filled the French pavilion with an eye-roll-worthy rotary press running anonymous baby faces. WE MUST FIGHT AGAINST TRANSPARENCE EVERY-WHERE, a banner proclaimed in Thomas Hirschhorn’s crystalline labyrinth at the Swiss pavilion. TRIUMPHANT SECRETIONS SCULPTED IN FOUL MIST DEHYDRATED SPECTRAL BIRTH . . . , began Steven Shearer’s verbose billboard raised above the Canadian pavilion. Everyone had something to get off their chest.
Left: Dealer Nicholas Logsdail with artist Marina Abramović. Right: Courtney Love with Salem's Jack Donoghue.
I spotted Maurizio Cattelan, Jean Pigozzi, and Francesco Bonami being followed around the grounds by a small Danish camera crew. As they walked, Cattelan trailed Bonami and ripped off black electrical tape to “slyly” make an anarchy sign on the back of the curator’s pale blue blazer. The Danes prodded Bonami: “Do you think the art world is open to unknown artists?” one asked as they passed Sigalit Landau at the Israeli pavilion.
“There is no such thing anymore as the ‘unknown artist,’ ” Bonami said with a flourish, disappearing in the direction of the British pavilion before I could hear him finish the thought. Welcome to the age of the known unknowns.
I poked around some more—Christoph Schlingensief’s ludicrous Fluxus cathedral for the German pavilion, with its Valie Export grannies and cardinal grannies flickering on screens, was one high point; Omer Fast’s video and Kerstin Brätsch/Das Institut’s installation in the Italian pavilion another. I ran into installers (the unknown knowns?) still making adjustments and Golden Lion jurist Christine Macel trying to keep up with her tribe. It seemed a bit early to be making calls.
After a couple more hours of snooping, I joined several colleagues on the terrace of the Biennale’s HQ, the fifteenth-century Ca’ Giustinian. “Well, I’m still alive,” said Curiger, somehow looking both pained and relieved. “But the making of the Biennale might be lost to history.” The night prior, her MacBook Air had slipped from under her arm and into the Grand Canal as she was boarding a boat, the neoprene sleeve acting “like a sponge.” She didn’t look convinced when I suggested (optimistically, I thought) that it gave her narrative pathos. (“Undocumented experience is life thrown down the lavatory!” a character admonishes in Nathaniel Mellor’s twisted video in the Italian pavilion. But at least the evidence of all that hard work is here.)
The next day was the first of several official “openings” for the Biennale. “Who needs other people when you can fuck your seat?” a prominent critic asked as we stood watching a gymnast wrap her body around a replica of a business-class airplane chair inside Allora & Calzadilla’s Olympics-inspired US pavilion. Outside, a crowd of press and curators hooted for the athletes who were assembled for a photo shoot behind an upside-down tank: “America! That’s America!” (Applause as pavilion curator Lisa Freiman posed campily with the squad captain.)
Venice is so often a send-up of its “classy,” historic self. Which is at least part of why it’s Francesco Vezzoli’s milieu, the context where, several years back, we finally “got” him, this art star who, like all good, resourceful stars, seems ambivalent about the getting.
We ran into the master charmer at Palazzo Grassi and he shuttled Eli and Edythe Broad, Dominique Lévy, Maria Bell, and soigné curator Caroline Corbetta to the Prada Foundation for a preview of its new Venetian exhibition space in the eighteenth-century pile Ca’ Corner della Regina. “I have to give a tour now,” he said, turning to me. “Don’t make fun.”
We wended through the building, which the foundation restored to glory in a brief five months. (The enamel on the handrails is still tacky.) “Can you believe the beauty of this? This installation?” Bell said. We stopped at Cattelan’s sculpture of an ostrich, its head buried in the floorboards. “Oh boy . . . ” Eli grinned.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” chuckled Edy.
“And here’s the grand finale,” Vezzoli said coyly at his installation, featuring a pair of busts: a rendition of the artist coquettishly admiring a replica of the Apollo Belvedere.
“You’re so beautiful!”
“But this will fade,” Vezzoli said, looking slightly overcast. “The statue remains, though. And they erased my wrinkles.”
“You’re teasing us!” someone squealed, poking at the barricade. “Let us in!”
After Vezzoli’s quick (“Ten more minutes, I promise!”) meeting with Rem Koolhaas, Miuccia Prada, and curator Germano Celant, we hitched a ride to the Enrico David installation at the Palazzetto Tito and then the preview for Anish Kapoor’s subtle Ascension at the Basilica di San Giorgio. “Anish, it’s a bust!” said MoMA PS1 board member Richard Chang, catching the spirals of smoke in one of its waning moments. “Just wait,” Kapoor told him. Then, seconds later: “Aha . . . ”
When I walked into the dinner for the US pavilion at the Cipriani that night, they were playing Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” and Michael Stipe was leaving with RoseLee Goldberg and Klaus Biesenbach. I snacked on some eggplant parmesan while watching the gymnasts dance to the Clash and then Vezzoli picked me up (“I just want to be known as the columnist’s driver,” he implored sweetly) and dropped me off across the water at San Giorgio Maggiore, just south of where the Missonis had docked their boat. I removed my shoes and joined Sadie Coles and Angela Missoni’s dinner for Gabriel Kuri and Urs Fischer (two certainly knowns), finding that, alas, most of the guests were already repairing to other parties. So, shoes on, then another water taxi to the Bauer Hotel and past a done-up lady “going for some jet-lag rehab—ciao!” and then a quick walk (“Everyone gets just one ‘hello’ along the way!”) to the Bungalow 8 pop-up (don’t ask) in the Starck-ified Palazzina Grassi and Amy Sacco was yelling above the din, “Welcome to Venice!”
Oh boy . . .