WHEN SUN TZU WROTE The Art of War in the sixth century BC, he probably wasn’t thinking of artists, let alone Toby Heys and Lisi Raskin, the two artists who delivered presentations on the weaponization of culture on Tuesday night at Art in General. He was, however, advising his readers to exhaust every strategy short of physical combat to defeat their enemies, and that, Heys and Raskin showed, is the aspect of war for which art and culture have been conscripted to play a part, particularly since the dawn of communications technology and electronic media. Sponsored by Triple Canopy, this (literally) small talk felt like a slightly rambling but often engaging tour through the audiovisual scrapbooks of two mildly paranoid obsessives. Being a mildly paranoid obsessive myself—one who, like these artists, is fascinated by music, deception, intelligence work, and the cold war—this was fine by me. I did find myself occasionally wondering what others were getting out of it.
After a brief introduction by Triple Canopy deputy editor Molly Kleiman, Heys, a British sound artist, began his talk. He announced that he was going to play twelve sound clips from a laptop, each an example of audio designed to deceive, dispirit, or terrorize. Though he promised something from the 1930s to start, the familiar descending bass slide of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” came on instead. An early instance of sonic deception? No, a glitch. (Oddly, for two artists so focused on technology, this was a recurring theme throughout the evening.) Cueing up the intended clip, Heys said that the innocuous Guy Lombardo–style big-band tune was by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra. Selvin, a hyperprolific bandleader and producer, holds the Guinness Book world record for most recorded sides in music history. He was also, more to Heys’s point, an early program director for the nascent Muzak corporation in the ’30s. Muzak is generally thought of as annoying but harmless elevator music, but, as Heys noted, it has been deployed strategically since its inception on factory workers (as Taylorist “audio anesthesia” that would mask the grimness of their surroundings and make them work harder) and on shoppers (to lull them into a consumerist trance).
Next, Heys played a clip of the Ghost Army, a WWII cadre of artists (including Ellsworth Kelly), set designers, sound engineers, and the like, who were enlisted to mimic or exaggerate US forces in the field, fooling the Nazis with live mixes of sound-effect records of armored vehicles, munitions, explosions, etc. These multi-turntable mixmasters were the “original battle DJs,” Heys quipped. He followed this with the eerie, psychedelic “wandering soul” tapes from the Vietnam War. Over an Acid Test collage of severely Echoplexed musique concrète, a mournful female voice told her countrymen in Vietnamese that she was trapped in limbo between life and death because she had died far from her home village. A CIA psy-ops project inspired by Vietnamese folk superstition, the “wandering soul” tapes played a part in Denis Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke and have a distinctly Apocalypse Now vibe. With several clips of music, including “These Boots” and the Barney theme, used to force those under siege to surrender (Koresh in Waco, Noriega in Panama) or to elicit confessions from detainees (Guantanamo Bay), Heys theorized that the key element of such “touchless torture” is repetition, the rate of which has been increasing in music culture ever since the invention of the radio. (The sampled loops of golden-age rap might have bolstered this point, though he didn’t mention it. Adorno had something to say about this as well.)
Raskin began her PowerPoint presentation with a slide of the Greenbrier fallout shelter in West Virginia, a massive, real-life Strangelovian facility that was intended to house Congress in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Known for installations inspired by cold-war military and intelligence culture, Raskin (like Heys), seemed to be sharing the source material for her work. She ran a long, hilariously retrofuturist AT&T ad from the early ’80s about their spanking new fiber optic network, the promise of which seemed to be that it would make routine interoffice communications look as whiz-bang as an episode of The A-Team. She spoke about ARPANET, the cold-war Defense Department network, connected by fiber optics, which slowly mutated into today’s Internet. Over a still of Michael Caine sitting in front of an early computer bank, from Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Raskin free-associated about Honeywell, a long-standing conglomerate that, like General Electric, makes everything from mundane household products (thermostats) to military supercomputers to napalm. To emphasize the horrors of the last, she played an infamous news clip of burned Vietnamese children fleeing a misdirected napalm attack.
During the Q&A, both artists spoke about the repurposing of culture for warlike ends and how some artists and their appropriated works can slowly be returned to the cultural realm without blemish. Raskin noted that Hugo Boss once designed uniforms for the Nazi brownshirts and that Donald Rumsfeld’s “logic” (“known unknowns,” etc.) sounded like Deleuze. Heys asserted that modern communication technology abnegates personal responsibility and provides cover for malign or negligent corporations. The connotations of commodities are effaced by time, they agreed, and hence it’s hard for anyone or anything to remain “outside” this process. Strangely, two middle-aged women in the audience challenged the artists on their perceived pacifism, one saying the use of cultural material as weaponry can sometimes be justified because war itself is necessary; the other maintaining that a pacifist stance “opens one up to risk.” Well, yeah. So does being born. I knew the Mama Grizzlies were out there in the heartland; I didn’t expect them to be near Canal Street in a small gallery with a bunch of liberal-academic cultural elites. Maybe they were part of a psy-op… or perhaps they’d just been temporarily repurposed.
CALIFORNIA MAY NOT HAVE THE HAMPTONS, but Napa surely provides a more than adequate alternative with panoramic views and ample drink. Norman and Norah Stone’s annual midsummer soiree has been adding to the pastoral magic since 2007, luring the art faithful (or at least those faithful enough to secure an invite) to their now fabled Art Cave, which has fast become one of the wonders of the West Coast art world. This year’s installment, held the Saturday before last, cemented the reputation even further, with all the bells and whistles of a heavy-duty event, including perky door staff, a jam-packed hillside parking lot, and courtesy shuttle, which prompted one of my companions to ponder: “Is this like art-world Coachella?”
If not quite a festival, there was definitely a jovial mood in the air as we were greeted by our gracious hostess, who had donned a fringed confection that brought to mind a pom-pom reincarnated as the chicest cocktail attire imaginable. Norman, sporting an ingenious mirrored hoodie, ushered guests into the cave, which was inaugurating a new exhibition, “Politics Is Personal”—the excuse for the summertime fete. Mixing recent acquisitions with selections from the Stones’ permanent collection, the show offers an intriguing look at how art has articulated (or disarticulated) politics over the past few decades. It was, of course, filtered through personal taste, but it amply featured the collection’s holdings of top-notch artists like Catherine Opie, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Sigmar Polke—and it rivaled many museum exhibitions in ambition if not scale (a sign of the times if ever there was one).
The centerpiece was a new site-specific installation by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled (police the police), which includes a large-scale wall mural in charcoal, developed in conjunction with local art students from SFAI, who were on hand for the occasion and looked appropriately awed. Guests were invited to add their voices as well, but most of the well-heeled attendees seemed a little daunted by the work’s artistic capaciousness (or at least the prospect of messy charcoal), opting instead to sort vigorously through a neighboring pile of American Apparel tees screenprinted with the words POLICE THE POLICE. I don’t know what the full political implications were, but the rummaging was oddly satisfying, and I quickly secured my size.
Left: Amy Stone, Robert Buck, and architect Martin Cox. Right: David Kordansky Gallery's Mike Homer and artist Matias Faldbakken.
In the adjacent space was an impressive installation by Walid Raad, who was unable to attend but who provided a stand-in/stunt double, Viennese actor Markus Reymann, for the performance-lecture. “I was so blown away by Walid’s lectures that I offered to be his replacement for those he could not deliver in person,” Reymann noted in his preamble. Whether intended or not, the surrogate added an intriguing dimension to the work, speaking to the slippage of bodies, markets, and politics.
I ran into SF MoMA curator Apsara Diquinzio (she might have been the only guest sans a T-shirt), who had just finished putting the final touches on the catalogue for her upcoming curatorial enterprise, “The Air We Breathe,” a gutsy exhibition opening this fall that features all commissioned work around the issue of same-sex marriage. Even in the terminally progressive Bay Area, the undertaking might raise a few eyebrows, and I mentioned the titillating possibility of protesters who might, incidentally, also be great for museum attendance. She assured me that all of the work was quite meditative, but added encouragingly: “Who knows, maybe Michele Bachmann will get wind of it.” I can only hope.
Outside, guests mingled in the summer twilight, with conversation fueled by the Stones’ great wines. I spotted Gavin Brown, Jens Hoffmann, Hope Atherton, James Turrell (an imposing bearded patriarch), and Standard Oslo’s Eivind Furnesvik, recently back from a scouting trip in Los Angeles. “Now the LA-Oslo axis is complete,” he offered.
After an outdoor dinner, revelers gathered at the site’s other pièce de résistance, Turrell’s Stone Sky, an outdoor pavilion and pool that shifted with subtle permutations of magenta and cyan, while the white cube hovered seductively on the water’s surface. Emi Fontana, swaying to the live salsa music, chatted about her upcoming art parade–gathering in Los Angeles, the culmination of the Trespass Parade project, a massive undertaking with over forty artists (which incidentally also includes T-shirts. The new tote bag, perhaps?).
Despite the protestations during dinnertime, after the mandatory half-hour rest (and a few cocktails), most of the guests began to make their way to the pool (led by the student contingency eager to strip down). In the locker room, I tried to look as professional as possible while shimmying my way into a pair of loaner bathing trunks. The effort was only mildly successful, but Tiravanija smiled generously.
Swimming inside the cube and gazing at the night sky was an experience in its own right—and reminded everyone of Light and Space’s staunch California roots. A good portion of the San Francisco art world gathered inside, including Matthew Marks’s Sabrina Buell, Yves Behar, Ratio 3’s Chris Perez, and dealer Jessica Silverman. After the obligatory aahing at the color permutations, the gang proceeded to enjoy some improvised games of chicken and assorted water acrobatics, activating a laid-back magic that the Hamptons would be hard pressed to beat.
DIFFERENT PEOPLE have different ways of coping with the heat of a New York summer. Last Wednesday night at the Pace Gallery on Twenty-second Street, Kate Gilmore and her flowery smock–clad crew of like-minded women vented the frustrations of many by hurling pounds of shit-brown clay at the walls. They didn’t actually scream, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” They didn’t say anything, too pooped, as it were, from the effort involved in pitching so much gunk so forcefully without pause.
The performance, Through the Claw, continued as the gallery filled with people escaping a sudden, equally pummeling downpour that throttled the streets and bent trees in the wind. Most were actually there for the opening of “Soft Machine,” a group show of artworks gathered to signify the kind of psychological control mechanisms at work in the William Burroughs novel of the same title.
The rain cleared and cooled the air for the opening of curator Massimiliano Gioni’s “Ostalgia,” at the New Museum, which was hot enough. “Did you see my bombs?” asked David Ter-Oganyan, whose makeshift “explosives,” fashioned out of bottles and gourds, were stashed like unattended bags in corners and behind other works in a show that includes the work of fifty-six artists from twenty countries of the former Eastern Bloc, circa 1970s to the present.
Ter-Oganyan is one of many young Russians and Slavs who rushed the museum with the enthusiasm of captives who had just been liberated from their oppressors, the same impression created by the exhibition’s artworks, most of them totally unknown on these shores. (Ditto the installation of Charles Atlas’s Joints Array, a ’70s-era, fragmented video portrait of a deconstructed Merce Cunningham installed on the ground floor. It’s terrific.)
The title of Gioni’s show borrows from a German term expressing a certain longing for the days of Soviet rule before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when people had jobs and the Stasi made the rules of behavior clear. But at the New Museum the term is ironic. None of the artworks in this absorbing exhibition profess any great affection for the bleak circumstances of life behind the Iron Curtain. But they do give evidence of a vibrant underground that embraces the idea that rules were made to be broken.
A couple years in the making, “Ostalgia” has been financed mostly by a two-year-old foundation named Victoria—The Art of Being Contemporary (or VAC), a philanthropy supporting contemporary art projects in Russia. Funded by the deep pockets of Russian billionaire businessman Leonid Mikhelson, its mission includes moving new Russian art into the global discourse with shows like Gioni’s. (It also cosponsored, with the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, “Modernikon—Contemporary Art from Russia,” the show that Francesco Bonami and Irene Calderoni organized as a collateral event of this year’s Venice Biennale.)
“This is exactly the sort of thing the New Museum should be doing,” said museum trustee Manuel Gonzalez, as we perused a large number of ’60s documentary photographs by Boris Mikhailov, snapshots of young Ukrainians, many of whom are pictured naked and in compromising positions, making the best of some very impoverished circumstances.
Mikhelson’s interest in contemporary art was spurred by his nineteen-year-old daughter, Victoria, who came for the occasion with her mother, Tatiana. He was also inspired by VAC’s director, Teresa Iarocci Mavica, who arrived with her very tall and engaging eighteen-year-old daughter, Greta Mavica. Mikhelson père, the younger Mavica said, is not a celebrity-seeking oligarch like some other known Russian art bigwigs; he prefers to let his daughter, a student of contemporary art history, have all the fun. She is the face of the organization, and it is really Mavica (mère) who runs it. “I went to Russia twenty-five years ago to study political science,” said the Italian-born Mavica at a dinner for the artists at Pulino’s. “I can’t really explain why I stayed, but now I’m happy to be doing this.”
A vanilla-suited Bernard Picasso, who has also supported Russian artists, arrived with ultrachic dealer Almine Rech and dug into pizza and baked ziti with meatballs. The opening also attracted Barbara Gladstone, the dealer who represents two of the more widely known artists in the show, Andro Wekua and Mirosław Bałka; Whitney curators Donna De Salvo and Chrissie Iles; and Helene Winer, whose Metro Pictures gallery shows “Ostalgia” artist Paulina Olowska. But most of the other artists present were scruffy young things who did not express a longing to be anywhere other than New York. For example, Nikolay Oleynikov (“Call me Nik. I’m Nik!”) had a heavy New York Yankees medallion hanging from a chain wrapped around one wrist. His five-artist Chto Delat? (What Is to Be Done?) collective puts out a politically minded Russian-English newspaper and produced an amusing time line for the show that is painted on the walls of the museum’s fifth floor.
I was seated at a table with Moscow dealer Vladimir Ovcharenko of Regina Gallery, whose son Mike oversees the family’s Mayfair outpost in London. Four of their artists, including Pavel Pepperstein and Victor Alimpiev, are in Gioni’s show. Vladimir, Mike told me, had been a banker until twenty-five years ago, when he met a young artist who so impressed him that he retired from banking and went into the art business. “It’s a sad story,” said Mike. “Because the artist died when he was only twenty-seven.” He didn’t say what caused the death, but the gallery has been a going concern ever since.
He spoke of Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, and its move next year to a historic building she is restoring in a public park that will be even bigger than the one she’s in now. He credited the Center with stimulating Moscow’s taste for contemporary art, though galleries remain few. “The Rothko show last year had lines of people around the block waiting to get in,” he said. “It was very impressive.”
Outside the restaurant, Ter-Oganyan, Oleynikov, and Anatoly Osmolovsky provided a steady supply of duty-free cigarettes for tax-oppressed locals like Gioni. “It’s such a shame,” Gioni deadpanned, as he slipped a Russian Parliament out of Ter-Oganyan’s proffered box. “Tomorrow we have to de-install the whole show.”
UNLIKE ITS NORTHERN NEIGHBOR LIVERPOOL, Manchester has long eschewed the biennial in favor of a cross-disciplinary, celebrity-laced International Festival. Its first edition, held in 2007, premiered “Il Tempo del Postino” (Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s not altogether felicitous attempt to stage performance art in a traditional theater) and hosted an experimental opera by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, creators of the band Gorillaz. The second edition, in 2009, saw Marina Abramović giving lessons in watching durational art, another opera (by Rufus Wainwright), and commissions from Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, and the immersive theater company Punchdrunk. In contrast to this energetic flirtation among art, theater, and pop music, the Liverpool Biennial seems crippled by Arts Council funding agendas and routinely weak commissions. Manchester is definitively A-list, Liverpool at best a C.
So much for context; what about this year’s commissions? I rolled into rainy Manchester last Sunday afternoon in time for Björk’s Biophilia, a voyage into the “music of the spheres” through six concerts that were billed as “intimate” but which actually housed some two thousand people at Campfield Market Hall, each of whom stood and jostled for a view of the singer’s giant ginger afro and futuristic frilly blue dress. As to be expected, Biophilia involves new instruments: Huge, sculptural objects littered the stage, such as the Frankenstinian “sharpsichord” (a vast pin barrel harp with gleaming trumpet) and a “gameleste” (the love child of a celeste and an Indonesian gamelan). This nature-meets-technology jamboree is presented as a full-on “project”: two albums, a series of iPhone apps, and a children’s education program. The pedagogic orientation was audible from the get-go, when David Attenborough—familiar to all Brits as the presenter of innumerable television nature shows—introduced the concert with an authoritative voice-over. Choosing Attenborough to announce each song (“Cosmogeny—Music of the Spheres!”) was a brilliant move, relocating Björk’s eccentricities away from Beuysian holistics and more toward BBC reassurance. Surrounded by a twenty-four-strong choir of Icelandic teenage girls (dressed in blue-and-gold caped robes), Björk worked through the album, interspersing new songs (like “Thunderbolt” and “Virus”) with older favorites like “Isobel,” “Hidden Place,” and (for the encore) an exquisitely spare version of “One Day.” The crowd of thirty- and forty-somethings were in raptures, and obligingly roared and danced along to “Declare Your Independence” as finale.
Comparing the stark brilliance of Björk’s searing voice and offbeat lyrics to works of art requires a major change of gear. The next morning I tuned in to Audio Obscura, a new Artangel commission from the poet Lavinia Greenlaw: a site-specific work for Piccadilly Station in which you don headphones and meander around looking at punters, presumably mapping the recorded voices of the sound track onto their faces and actions. Somehow these interior monologues (by primarily middle-class and southern actors) never seemed to match the people I was drawn to observing: two women in saris, some kids eating pasties, some chipper old men, a group of girls in burqas. I was left thinking that Manchester has more robust and diverse characters than the wispy, fraught neuroses of Greenlaw’s fragmented sound track; not unlike the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Audio Obscura’s technology was more impressive than its content.
The next day I hit Manchester Art Gallery expecting lines for “Eleven Rooms,” Hans Ulrich Obrist’s return to curating performance (in collaboration with Klaus Biesenbach), but was pleased to find it far from swamped. (Such is the privilege of life in the provinces on a Monday afternoon.) The main exhibition space has been divided into eleven identically sized white cubes that are accessed from a U-shaped foyer. The first room contains Roman Ondák’s Swap: a table bearing an object that you can exchange for something of your own. (When I went in, there was a box of matches on the table; I took them and left behind a tampon.) Other rooms were more voyeuristic: One contained only a man facing the wall, a veteran of wars in Afghanistan or Ireland (a work of strangely ambivalent dignity by Santiago Sierra); in another, a naked woman relentlessly inspects her body in a small circular mirror (a reprisal of Joan Jonas’s 1970 Mirror Piece). In a third, an exuberant young actor in a disheveled bed awakes from slumber to effusively narrate from a leather-bound tome called The Life of Saint Simon; he ponders the capture of hostages, the desire for masturbation, and the actor’s failure to “perform.” Simon Fujiwara’s ten-minute theater was a perfectly self-reflexive commentary on the key ingredients of “Eleven Rooms”: The actors were all, in some sense, hostages to endless repetition without the gratification of applause, performing ad infinitum in sterile and airless chambers.
Stockholm syndrome might well describe the audience’s position in some of the participatory works—the best of which included Allora & Calzadilla’s Revolving Door, in which eight people march sweepingly in formation, malignly trapping you behind them as they silently change direction. Tino Sehgal’s Ann Lee, the latest installment of Parreno and Pierre Huyghe’s rescued manga character, is the project’s finest avatar to date. An eleven-year-old girl, ethereal in her gestures (almost floating), tells us about her life as the emptied persona Ann Lee. It’s a lonely place: She lives passed from artist to artist, all of whom seem too busy to hang out with her. Unlike previous works by Sehgal, our responses don’t make or break the piece (thank God), and the sequence ends with a poetic conundrum: What is the relationship between a sign and melancholia? Ann Lee has a lightness of touch and modesty of scale that reminds you how good Sehgal can be once you remove him from the blockbuster Guggenheim/Tate Modern circuit.
The lightness of touch in “Eleven Rooms” was a telling foil to Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, which required a trek out to Salford’s soul-destroying “MediaCityUK” (a blandly gentrified industrial zone) to find the Lowry Center. Wilson’s work is nearly three hours long, and highly variable in pace (from the ponderously drawn out to the rapid-fire), but it contains some visually arresting tableaux; it’s accompanied by the music of Matmos, Svetlana Spajić Group (with a trio of Serbian singers), and Antony Hegarty (a curiously rigid performer, dressed in black like Mary Queen of Scots). All the performers have their faces plastered in white pancake makeup to look like Marina (including Marina herself). The look is most disturbing on Willem Dafoe, who seems to channel Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter via Jack Nicholson’s Joker. It is Dafoe, however, who holds the whole thing together with a sparkling performance as unreliable guide and narrator. The work is most alive when he’s in control, either as the platitude-heavy therapist undermining Abramović’s earnest anecdotes, or as the archivist shuffling through a mountain of newspaper cuttings to offer a nonchronological cv of her most recent decade (falling in and out of love, too many airports and hotels, the MoMA show, etc.).
Much like The King’s Speech, Wilson’s performance recalls recent trends in biopics, by elevating a personal story above political context or cultural achievements: There is no mention of communism beyond a coy hammer slowly rising to cross the moon and stars in “Dream Crusher,” and hardly any reference to Abramović’s art. The occasional video clip of Marina is shown on a screen, but this is interspersed with so many other images unrelated to her output (such as an elephant swimming underwater) that you forget she’s a visual artist. And as for the question that’s on everyone’s lips—how does Marina die?—I’m sorry to report that this remains an enigma. In the penultimate scene the diva is dressed in red, wheeled across stage on an elevated bed, surrounded by undulating watery clouds (death in the air, or at sea?). The final image is of three identical Marinas, dressed in white silk robes, lifted up to the proscenium. In other words, she ascends to heaven in the traditional Christian manner, as is appropriate for this most theological of body artists.
Left: Artist Dorothea Rockburne and Parrish Art Museum curator Alicia Longwell. Right: Photographer Bill Cunningham. (All photos: Patrick McMullan)
DEPARTING FROM AN ANONYMOUS STREET CORNER in midtown Manhattan, the Hampton Jitney (a basic bus that’s the transport of choice for those embarrassingly bereft of the true convenience that only a private helicopter can offer) doubles as a whistle-stop tour of some less tony neighborhoods as it barrels out of town. Among these is Long Island City, and since we had hit the road on a summer Saturday, my fellow escapees and I were treated to a view of the line that wraps itself around MoMA PS1 whenever the institution’s seasonal Warm Up parties are in session.
The club kids who brought up the rear down Jackson Avenue appeared unfazed by the prospect of a lengthy wait in the afternoon sun, but despite the pull of the dance floor, I was happy with my seat and complementary nibbles. Circumstances permitting, I would have been on an earlier bus and heading for the opening of the Bridgehampton Biennial, a (title notwithstanding) one-off show organized “just for the fun of it” by former MoMA PS1 curatorial advisor Bob Nickas. Staged at Martos Gallery’s summer base in a Sagaponack Road farmhouse, the event did sound like a blast. But it was not to be, and I was en route instead to Southampton for the Parrish Art Museum’s annual Midsummer Party.
This fundraiser was to be the Parrish’s last in its current location; by mid-2012, the museum will move to a new, Herzog & de Meuron–designed building in nearby Water Mill. A projected budget of $80 million for the base in progress shriveled to a more modest $25 million in practice, but the new digs will still feature triple the exhibition space of the old. Officials were cagey about the upcoming program, but I heard whispers that Jennifer Bartlett would be the subject of the opening solo show, and that Alice Aycock would show in 2013. The future of the institution’s Jobs Lane birthplace, which is owned by the notoriously controlling town, remained more of a mystery, as village elders continue to debate their preferences.
Left: Choreographer Trisha Brown, artist Burt Barr, and writer Iris Smyles. Right: Olympia Sonnier, artist Keith Sonnier, dealer James Salomon, and Barbara Brodd.
But while such matters might have weighed heavily on the minds of partners and benefactors, others were present for different reasons entirely. As I checked in, octogenarian New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham, recently the subject of an affecting documentary film, was already taking the crowd’s sartorial temperature. He surely won’t have been short of subjects; guests were dressed to impress, though the pastel blazers and showy ball gowns signally failed to detract from their wearers’ more ill-advised nips and tucks. At one point, I spied two gentlemen of a certain age caressing each other’s chins in what seemed at first to be a tender moment, but turned out to be a comparison of recent work.
Orbiting the museum—currently hosting a Dorothea Rockburne retrospective—and its tented garden, I also spotted local painters of note Ross Bleckner and Eric Fischl, commentator Anthony Haden-Guest, and collector Adam Sender. But even without the benefit of a cocktail, the majority of faces soon blurred together into what a local tablemate at dinner characterized as “a very South-of-Hill-Street crowd,” with “old money or big money” burning a hole in its collective pocket. I heard too that Sonja “Mo’ money, mo’ problems” Morgan, troubled star of Real Housewives of New York, was in attendance, but if this was true she kept a lower profile than might have been expected. New York Observer culture editor Sarah Douglas, having invested some time in pointing out an idiomatic boo-boo to a senior staffer at Hamptons magazine, looked to be feeling as out of her element as I was.
Oddly, dining and dancing were combined—or at least juxtaposed—perhaps to get this portion of the evening over and done with in good time for the separately ticketed “after ten” party scheduled to follow. There were a few short speeches, most notably by Parrish director Terrie Sultan and founding partner, trustee, and president of the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation Norman Peck. And a lineup of founding partners were presented with Tiffany tchotchkes. But the focus was on a wedding disco–style knees-up in which a segue from early Lady Gaga into late Madonna was about as artful as the DJing got. As I took a last spin around the old place while waiting for my ride home, the veterans began to totter out and a fresh stock of beautiful people rolled up to take their places, their excited voices—as Gatsby says of Daisy’s—full of money.
Left: Real Housewife Sonja Morgan with Social Life publisher Justin Mitchell. Right: Dealer Mary Boone and Michael Raynes.
“I’M HERE TO PRESENT some of my beliefs,” Gregg Bordowitz said as he began his performance-talk Testing Some Beliefs at Murray Guy gallery last Thursday evening. “Some of these beliefs will be familiar to you, since they are common beliefs, and one of the things I’m testing is whether we actually still share them.”
This is more or less what he said. He was speaking extemporaneously, from the barest outline, and his delivery was gentle and slow; but even so, the string of propositions passed by very quickly.
Two months earlier, at a late-night reading at the Poetry Project in New York, I had seen Bordowitz read from his recent book Volition, which consists entirely of questions. Strikingly, the parade of interrogatives in their unremitting doubt had conjured an unmoored but unmistakable sensation of faith, much like the ghostly dark rectangle that appears after we look away from a white movie screen. So it felt fitting to hear him now presenting beliefs, and to see how, conversely, the credo format lent itself so naturally to doubt. Indeed, many of his statements of belief—we can make something (in a gallery context) that exceeds the terms of the profit motive, there’s a moral basis for art, the highest form of culture is critique, art and freedom are necessarily related (“and by necessarily I mean essentially,” he added, just in case he hadn’t been provocative enough)—seemed to be begging for rebuttal, or at least argument.
I mentioned this to him after the Murray Guy lecture, as the gallery was emptying onto the sidewalk. “Absolutely!” he said. “To declare belief is to mobilize doubt. And I saw doubt on people’s faces when I was talking—like when I said that objects contain emotions. I’ll probably talk about that with others later. But maybe that’s just my paranoia.”
Left: Artists Kristine Woods, Matt Keegan, and Fia Backström. Right: Murray Guy director Jacob King.
It was about ninety-nine degrees in the space during his presentation, with only a small fan in the adjacent gallery office meekly nudging a bit of air around. Perhaps two dozen people, including writer Lynne Tillman, art historians Douglas Crimp and Rosalyn Deutsche, and artists Kristine Woods and Moyra Davey, had nabbed chairs. Thirty or forty more—poet-critic Corrine Fitzpatrick and artists A. K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard among them—sat crammed on the floor; if one fidgeted enough one could keep finding new, still-cool spots of floor to press one’s legs against.
“If we’re looking at a sad painting,” Bordowitz was saying, “where is the sadness located? Is it located in the painting, in the painter, or in the viewer? I believe the emotion exists in all of these places. And I believe that the sadness is a material component of the painting. Some people in this room initiated the critique of Abstract Expressionism. Many of us inherited it. The critique is that the mark is not an authentic expression of an emotion in the maker but merely a sign of an emotion. I believe the mark is a transcription of a sensation that was taking place for the maker.”
A copper sculpture by Leonor Antunes, suspended from the ceiling, swayed slightly toward the head of a seated woman. Across a small aisle from her sat Yvonne Rainer, listening with intent, her head in a subtle and continuous nod.
Bordowitz discussed a moment in Rainer’s 1980 film Journeys from Berlin/1971 in which she addresses the camera as if it is her mother. “It’s a raw eruption of emotion in an otherwise carefully scripted and choreographed film,” he said, his blue and white checked shirt increasingly mottled with sweat. “And it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe Yvonne’s tears,” he went on, connecting this to the importance of what he called radical skepticism—another way of saying doubt, really.
“I still believe that art can change the world.” A murmur of interest arose from the assembled. “I don’t know why I believe this. There is absolutely no factual basis for this belief!” A few giggles in the room. “I have been involved in a lot of activist art, and at one point I believed that art could change government policy. However, we cannot draw a direct line from one work of art to any specific policy changes. . . . But I believe that art is capable of altering proportions, altering attachments, and changing the way we see the world.”
There’s what we see, and then there’s what we make of it; and what is belief, anyway, if not the selective importance we assign to aspects of a complex reality? Bordowitz ended with an anecdote: “Yesterday I decided I was going to go to the beach. I checked the weather online, and there was a symbol containing all the possibilities—a storm cloud with a lightning bolt and rain coming out of it, and a sun peeking out from the top. It was the Everything sign. I said to myself, ‘It’s gonna rain!’ I didn’t go to the beach. That’s it.”
Left: Artist Cory Arcangel. (Photo: Slater Bradley) Right: Performer in Xavier Cha's Body Drama. (Photo: Lauren Devine/Opening Ceremony)
THERE WAS A CAMERA pointed right at her. She moaned as she writhed in vain to escape its lens. What a relief not to be on paparazzi duty. It was Xavier Cha’s Body Drama at the Whitney Museum last Wednesday. As the performer—who wore a sideways tripod as shoulder harness—stumbled circles around the crowded first-floor gallery, spectators scattered to make room. At least, most of them did. Ryan Trecartin was there, and his entourage of cast members and friends would occasionally poke into the camera’s field and preen. “That’s just what they do,” a friend said.
Later they joined Cha for her party at the Carlyle—that’s just what they do—but I went to Grand Central Station for a dinner, hosted by Team Gallery, celebrating yet another show at the Whitney, Cory Arcangel’s “Pro Tools.” “I used to spend a lot of time here,” said Whitney director Adam Weinberg as he descended to the dining concourse. “I was a commutah!” Junior’s and Two Boots Pizza looked tempting, but the destination was the Oyster Bar, a tiled cavern in the station’s depths. The venue, grand and central as it was, felt casual as any seaside picnic table where one slurps oysters and rips open lobster carapaces. The demographics of the 120 guests might have had something to do with it; the Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo and collector Eileen Cohen noted with approval that almost no one but they had gray hair. “This dinner is in honor of the man who made self-playing—actually self-losing—video games into museum material,” said José Freire, Team’s owner, after silencing the room for his toast. “The kind of artist who would throw a rave for a cat.” Conversation was interrupted again after dessert, this time by a fierce rumble far too brief to be a passing train. “It’s dynamite,” a gleeful waiter explained. “They’re blowing up the LIRR!”
The next night I went to Chelsea, for the season’s final big burst of openings. My first stop, “A form is simply something which allows something else to be transported from one site to another” at Murray Guy, heralded a trend: Galleries are eschewing the tradition of the summer show as stable-jumble or curation-by-keyword (e.g., “art and hats!”) in favor of emulating ambitious nonprofits in the Midwest. Anton Kern offered a solo exhibition of John Bock, who built a curio cabinet as a theater for his stylization of silent-film sensationalism. Some brigand was torturing a maiden; her bodice gave way under the friction of ropes constricting her midsection. “That’s what pirates do,” a man told his small son. “Time to go to the next place!” It’s apparently been a while since I’ve been to Chelsea, and I was amazed by the proliferation of toddlers, strollers, and wheelchairs. It made navigation especially fraught at Casey Kaplan, which drew throngs with a taco truck on the sidewalk and a mariachi band just inside the door. Thickets of shins threatened ceramic floor pieces by Eduardo Sarabia, who wore dark sunglasses as he greeted guests. Across the street at Anna Kustera, the dozen-deep line to the front desk deterred me from picking up a checklist, and I squeezed my way outside before determining which of the drawings in “B-B-B-BAD” was by serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
The boustrophedonic path of Chelsea deposited me at the Piers, where Tanya Bonakdar, Andrew Kreps, Anton Kern, and Friedrich Petzel were cohosting a party on the decks of the Frying Pan. “You need a blue ticket,” said the bar’s hostess, who stood guard at the top of the dock. She held a clipboard—and I have no doubt that my name was on the attached list—but instead of consulting it she clutched it to her chest and hid it under beveled forearms. So I went to Julius in the West Village to mingle with the queers arriving from Museum 52, which had presented an exhibition of Leidy Churchman, Nicole Eisenman, and Celeste Dupuy-Spencer. Then, for parallelism’s sake, I returned to the hospitality of Team, which chose to mark two new shows (three guys at Grand, four guys at Wooster) with karaoke at Winnie’s. Art bros belted out Frank Sinatra and Pat Benatar. It was summer and they were intoxicated. Somewhere, their art was being shown. I sang some Roy Orbison and called it a night.
ON THE EVENING of June 24, as lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage in New York, a group of artists and activists on the opposite coast were instigating a less normative (though perhaps no less traditional) celebration of sexuality: the opening night of “Queering Sex,” a weeklong performance and video series at the downtown Los Angeles nonprofit Human Resources. While the event-cum-exhibition didn’t start any fires with the boilerplate press-release “positing” that “queer exists on multiple planes of non-linearity and is beyond hetero and homo-normative distinctions,” the lineup itself comprised a group of folk whose varying practices demonstrate a happily nuanced take on sex (as a critical and aesthetic tool), with special emphasis on historical constructions of queerness, the hyperbolic performance of “outness,” and our (hopefully) evolving relationships to genders and identities. True to form, the sizable crowd that spilled out of the gallery (a former movie theater in Chinatown) resembled the young, aggressively polysexual (trans)demographic that curators (and Vice magazine “power couple”) Kathryn Garcia and Sarvia Jasso aimed to represent: women in tailored blazers and work boots; men in girdles and Fluevogs; dads with babies; babes with daddies; femmes, womyn, twinks, dykes, beards, “straights,” a lady in a vagina costume—but mostly typical arty Eastsiders. People comfortable with quotation marks.
The exhibition commenced (after a successful Kickstarter campaign) with a screening to set the feel: works by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Orlan, Skip Arnold, Nadja Verena Marcin, Marnie Weber, and Lovett/Codagnonem, among many others. But I missed all that. So I jumped into the fray via a performance by the Norwegian collaborative Fine Art Union (artists Synnøve G. Wetten and Annette Stav Johanssen). The masked, bald-capped glamazons crooned, screamed, toppled a cardboard monolith, simulated fighting and fucking, hurled turdlike rubber wads at the audience, and smeared “menstrual-y” crimson paint onto each other’s faces. Against a backdrop of Freudian projections (a black hole, a snake), Fine Art Union performed what could be considered a “girling” of femininity, or id-like primitivism, or the resignification of sexual subjectivity . . . but maybe it was all just a drag. After the performance, artist Brian Getnick—the only viewer to throw turds back at the performers—whispered, “I wish it was as cathartic for us as it was for them.”
Left: Sphinx in performance. Right: Artist Bobbi Woods and Joe Deutch with Semiotext(e)'s Hedi El Kholti.
Matt Greene’s performance the following night was a comparatively repressed affair. As the audience found their seats, two severe-looking women in black—artists Lisa Anne Auerbach and Jennifer Cohen—appeared carrying trays of meatballs (veggie and beef) to satiate the crowd. As a black-clad Greene joined them, they took to a table at the center of the gallery and proceeded to read a hypnotizing narrative of dislocated desire: “There are those who in soft eunuchs place their bliss and shun the scrubbing of a bearded kiss [. . .] beautiful, take-charge type females believe in loving but old-fashion type methods when dealing with haughty husbands [. . .] cuckoldry is not all that it is cracked up to be.” Playing the joyless ballbusters, the women riffed on Greene’s self-deprecating delivery by subtly altering their vocal range from monotone to snobbish taunt, at times almost panting. “I’ve been researching castration anxiety, which Freud called the root of all fetishes,” Greene offered after the action. “I also recently watched The Empress Dowager, and the plot involves a fake eunuch. There’s a lot of comedy potential with a fake eunuch.” Slapstick may have been a more appropriate term.
Speaking of terms, there was a lot of chatter all weekend around the word “queering”: “The queerest thing about the idea of queer is the word itself,” summed up artist Spencer Douglass, who then added, “Why is queer so gay?” More clues came Sunday afternoon at a release party at a private home in Los Feliz (unrelated to Human Resources) for the fifth issue of writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s zine Pep Talk, a collection of brilliant wordsmith Bruce Hainley’s writings and letters. The issue’s introduction offered a list of keywords for “getting in the mood”: ANAL, LANA, WARHOL, FAGGOTRY, ENGENDER, (DIS)EMBODIED, RAMIFICATIONS, (GET A) LOAD, BLEW (MY MIND), BLUELY, BEAUTY, AVITAL RONELL, WITHDRAWAL . . . As I caught up with partygoers, it seemed that just about everyone had their own publication to talk about: artist Brian Kennon’s latest 2nd Cannons release Alice Cooper/Suzi Simpson; artist William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself; books in the works by Semiotext(e)’s Hedi El Kholti, ZG Press’s Rosetta Brooks, and art historian Jane McFadden; and more to come from Hainley on Sturtevant. Reflecting on the cool, relaxed scene, writer Jennifer Krasinski and artist Jeff Burton observed that only in LA do intellectuals sit around a swimming pool, smoke pot, and talk literature. “People in New York just don’t believe that this is what a typical party is like out here,” mused Krazinski. And she was right—this was the third pool party I had stopped by over the weekend (and, sadly, the only one without skinny-dippers).
I slipped away from the bookishly chic affair and cruised back to “Queering Sex” in time to catch the last jewel tones of Jack Smith’s Normal Love flickering in lapidary complexity, reflecting that parallel world where curiosities shape-shift into conventions. Garcia gave props to Gladstone Gallery for facilitating the loan of the film. “The fate of Jack Smith’s archive was so uncertain.” The rarely screened, never-finished follow-up to the infamous/infectious Flaming Creatures was a wise inclusion in the program. Its decadent denizens and simulated screen sirens delivered the perfect filmic appositeness of (and also, strangely, escape from) so much queering. Alongside the many inclusions of “Queering Sex”—absurdist rock-’n’-rollerblader Tall Paul (Gellman); New York femdom-metal band Sphinx; the frenetic, abstrusely feminist, and gravity-defying actions of Dawn Kasper; the hypnotically hetero stoner slowness of Joel Kyack’s band Street Buddy; and countless other videos—Normal Love stands out as a touchstone for generations fighting against sexual conformity in all its articulations. Let’s just hope the next generation of polysexuals, et al., can plug a little realness into the new “normal.”