FOR MUCH OF THE PAST THREE DECADES, Beirut has seemed like a bonkers place to be for anyone without a compelling reason to call it home. Lebanon’s civil war may have ended twenty years ago, but life in the capital has since been routinely blindsided by assassinations, explosions, occupations, and more wars, to say nothing of the humdrum horror of dealing with corruption, chaos, the slowest Internet connection on earth, and three-hour power outages every single day. No surprise, then, that the city’s feisty young arts organizations, who basically willed Beirut’s contemporary art scene into being in the mid-1990s, are now famous for their ability to improvise around whatever new disaster gets in their way.
The past year has been rather unnerving for resident artists and their ilk. Beirut has long been the region’s quintessential basket case. Now, with revolutions all around, and what looks more and more like a civil war next door in Syria, the city has quickly become the one thing no one ever expected it to be—an oasis of calm. Of course, no one imagines this situation will last—if Syria well and truly explodes, then Lebanon is all but guaranteed to follow. Perhaps for that very reason, nearly every contemporary art outfit in town crammed the last days of November with events.
The festivities began last Monday, with an open house at the Arab Image Foundation, a nonprofit with an idiosyncratic collection of more than three hundred thousand photographs from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab Diaspora. The foundation doubles as a creative hothouse for its members, and since 1997, it has generated a slew of groundbreaking art projects, from the once indefatigable exhibition “Mapping Sitting,” by Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad, to a forthcoming book on the Egyptian-Armenian studio photographer Van Leo, by Bidoun’s Negar Azimi and the graphic designer Karl Bassil. For the past ten years, the foundation has been holed up on the top floor of a modernist office block in downtown Beirut, surrounded by construction cranes, with depressing government bureaucracies on the floors below. It finally moved to an earthier, friendlier space in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood over the summer. The event on Monday marked the inauguration of the foundation’s new home, replete with a library, a reading room, and a promise to share its work more often with the public.
I ran into the artists Emily Jacir and Lara Baladi in the library, where Zaatari was cracking open the first copy of his new book, The Uneasy Subject, on the threads of homoeroticism and desire running through his work. Baladi, who lives in Cairo, said the revolution in Egypt—as tragically uncertain and incomplete as it may be—had taken over every aspect of her life, including her art, in the last year. It was strange, she said, to be back in Beirut, with little to no agitation in the air.
“I’ve been in Jordan, Palestine, the US, and Italy,” added Jacir, “and the place where I feel farthest from everything that’s happening is here. It’s really weird.”
That sense of disconnection proved an enduring theme for the week, nowhere more so than on Thursday night, at Bank Audi Plaza, the headquarters of Lebanon’s oldest bank (est. 1830), where a new organization called Art Beirut staged the first in a yearlong series of talks geared toward educating young collectors about the ins and outs of contemporary art.
“There is something highly perverse about an Irishman from London coming to do a talk for an audience in Beirut about contemporary Middle Eastern art,” said Anthony Downey, a program director for the Sotheby’s Institute and editor of the new, Middle East–themed online publishing platform Ibraaz. In fact, Downey was tasked with two talks, the first running through a breakneck history of the global sweep of contemporary art since the ’90s, the second skipping around some of the most famous artists from the Arab world and Iran. Who knew the Iraqi painter Ahmed Alsoudani, whose works are now selling for obscene prices at auction, was heavily influenced by de Kooning? And then came the questions from the audience:
“Where is the art in all of this? Where is the beauty? Tell me, where is the beauty in contemporary art?” a silver-haired gentlemen demanded of Downey.
Before he could answer, a coiffed woman seated a few chairs over clucked and shouted, “There is none!”
Downey handled this with aplomb, but by the time it ended, he must have been fairly shattered, uttering just three words as artists Marwa Arsanios and Dalia Khamissy ushered him out of the building: “Bar. Whiskey. Please.”
Left: Artist and Beirut Art Center codirector Lamia Joreige with novelist and journalist Hassan Daoud. Right: Anthony Downey of Ibraaz and the Sotheby's Institute.
Just as surprising but thankfully less taxing was Galerie Sfeir-Semler’s opening on Friday for Marwan Rechmaoui, who hasn’t had a solo show anywhere since he was making paintings with tar, sand, and concrete in 1998. For the past thirteen years, Rechmaoui has been producing sculptures at an agonizingly slow rate, sometimes researching a project for two or three years to create a single piece, such as his imposing concrete models of local architectural landmarks. It was a bit of a shock, then, to walk into the gallery and find the cavernous, postindustrial space filled with, if not paintings proper, then four related series of decidedly flat and painterly works. One series deals with the psychogeography of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon; another explores the eerily seductive forms of cluster bombs, mines, and other unexploded ordnance.
After the opening, gallery owner Andrée Sfeir-Semler hosted a raucous dinner for Rechmaoui, who had turned forty-seven the day before. A cake with a sparkler the size of a blowtorch arrived early in the meal, and then disappeared for several hours, just to make sure no one drank too much arak and forgot the occasion.
That day was Rechmaoui’s, but the week belonged to the twelve students who constitute the first class in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program. Perhaps the single most effective engine firing Beirut’s contemporary art scene, Ashkal Alwan began in 1994 as the producer of a series of unprecedented public space projects. In 2002, the organization’s director, Christine Tohme, initiated the Home Works Forum, which has become the closest thing (but better) that Beirut has to an international biennial. In five editions, it has stomped through all the ups and downs inevitable to the form. Two years ago, Tohme decided to expand the here-today-gone-tomorrow structure of the event to create an independent, tuition-free, workshop-driven, incubator-style art school. A local donor gave her an enormous floor of a former factory building—free for the first five years. The architect Youssef Tohme (no relation) spent the last eighteen months overhauling the space, with every detail (modular partitions, a hidden stage) worked out to expand the possibilities of what could happen there.
Left: Thomas Dane's Martine d'Anglejan-Chatillon. Right: Art Beirut's Tarek Sadi, Hala Fadel, and Maya Karanouh.
The students began quietly in September, with Emily Jacir as their resident professor, and a roster of visiting artists, architects, curators, theorists, and scholars rotating in and out of the curriculum (key words: insurrection, revolution, trauma, trickster, and troubadour). On Tuesday, the Home Workspace held its first public lecture, with Alfredo Jaar (Sophie Calle, Rabih Mroué, and Willie Doherty are giving talks next week). Tohme’s voice was shaking as she welcomed the crowd and introduced the program. “This is a miraculous institution,” Jaar began, as if to ease her mind. Not for nothing does this project have more permanence than anything Ashkal Alwan has ever done—or tried—before.
All that nervous energy had dissipated by Saturday afternoon, when the official public opening for the program began. People packed in slowly, a critical mass of artists, then architects, filmmakers, musicians, designers, gallery owners, patrons, restaurant mavericks, bankers, philanthropists, and everyone who had attended any of the events earlier in the week. The talks were brief and piercing. There was a full-on dance party underway by midnight. It felt like an auspicious start. “It’s amazing that this has survived,” said Rechmaoui, who was one of Ashkal Alwan’s founders back in the day. As for the political situation in the city, the country, the region, he said he was sure the whole thing was about to explode. Yet somehow it seems certain that the school will be fine, and ever flexible.
PERFORMA CONCLUDED A WEEK AGO, much to the relief of those of us who averaged a performance a day—or close to that: Over the biennial’s three weeks, I attended eighteen Performa-related events. Yet performance in New York doesn’t begin and end with Performa; it’s a year-round sport. Performa claims a lot of territory, but what remains outside its borders is often as interesting as that which gets stamped with its logo, if not more so.
I took a break from the Performa schedule to catch Richard Move at New York Live Arts. Move has been performing as choreographer-dancer Martha Graham since 1996, originally appearing at the downtown club Mother. His act moves beyond drag impersonation to capture something so true to its subject that the Martha Graham Dance Company went from threatening to sue Move to inviting the performer to choreograph for them.
Martha@ . . . The 1963 Interview saw Move shifting closer to reenactment, in a “metatheatrical re-creation” of a conversation between Graham and dance critic Walter Terry held at the 92nd Street Y. As the lights dimmed, Move reversed onto the stage, teasingly ankle first, clad in a wafting white robe. At six foot four, Move towered over his interviewer (played by diminutive actress Lisa Kron) and explained, in the velvety tones of a bona fide grande dame, Graham’s classical heroines; meanwhile two dancers from Graham’s company illustrated excerpts as Medea, Clytemnestra, and Jocasta. Gripping and hypnotic, it provided a firsthand glimpse of how the legendary Graham translated character and emotion into movement. Later, in the lobby, as we watched the real Graham camp it up in a projected video clip (courtesy of Charles Atlas), a friend commented, “I’ve always thought, if anything, Richard plays it down.”
Move’s work was actually sparer than many Performa events, which this year pushed visual artists onstage more than ever before. Some artists made this disciplinary leap better than others, while the New York Times lamented this expansion altogether (the art world is well known for its allergy to theater). These high-end productions begged comparison to experimental theater elsewhere in the city. While Elmgreen & Dragset found inspiration in Beckett, Elevator Repair Service has recently been turning classics of American literature into stunning live performance. In the epic Gatz—playing at the McCarter Theater in Princeton next month—The Great Gatsby is read word for word over six hours. A few weeks back, I caught The Select (The Sun Also Rises), a relatively short three-and-a-half-hour production featuring ten actors playing multiple roles and doubling as sound effects operators and stagehands. The Select engages the audience’s imagination so expertly that a trestle table becomes a perfectly believable stand-in for a bed, a bull, and even an enormous trout.
Left: Elevator Repair Service, The Select (The Sun Also Rises), 2011. (Photo: Mark Burton) Right: The Civilians, Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, 2011. Kelly McCreary, Michael Friedman, and Emily Ackerman. (Photo: Richard Termine for the New York Times)
The Civilians is another company with a novel approach to the stage. Billed as “investigative theater,” its scripts (and songs) are taken from interviews conducted by the group’s members, centered around meaty themes—past shows have focused on the evangelical movement in Colorado, Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards development project, and the adult entertainment industry. At the end of October, the Civilians hit Joe’s Pub for a one-night-only performance of their investigations into Occupy Wall Street. (The show was supposed to be screened live at Zuccotti Park as well, but that evening the cops removed the encampment’s generators, citing “safety hazards.”) The idea is similar to the “Living Newspaper” format that inspired Liz Magic Laser’s I Feel Your Pain—one of the best pieces in Performa—but while Laser harked back to Bill Clinton’s presidency (among other political moments), Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street was up-to-the-minute current.
A few days earlier at the same venue, I caught performance artist–turned-playwright Taylor Mac’s cabaret show of songs from the ’30s. It was relatively straightforward, aside from his ratty glam, pseudo-drag costume, and a brief display of his genitals. Mac told a story about old-school performance art—in other words, what used to go by that name before it was cleaned up and institutionalized: Performing at a downtown venue in the early ’90s, he saw a man give himself an enema with milk and then drink the residue with cereal, and a woman who removed a chicken piece by piece from her vagina. It was then that he realized, “Taylor, you’re not a performance artist, you’re just putting on eyeliner.” The Joe’s Pub gig was a warm-up for a twenty-four-hour concert (take that, Ragnar Kjartansson!) in which he will cover American popular songs, each hour dedicated to a different decade since the country’s independence. Mac is the kind of downtown performer you never see in Performa—that is, until Justin Vivian Bond was added to the Performa calendar (singing in a gallery, ironically enough).
To Performa’s credit, one of the most engaging works this month was by an alum. In Show, at the Kitchen, choreographer Maria Hassabi (class of ’09) stripped the theater of seats, scattering spotlights on the floor along one wall. On the night I attended, many in the audience (led by choreographer Sarah Michelson) quickly began to sit on the floor. The doors shut, and we sweated in silence for a good ten minutes, waiting for the performance to begin. Hassabi and collaborator Hristoula Harakas eventually appeared and picked their way through the crowd toward the center of the room, stopping right next to me. Unsure of whether I should move or not—whether I was supposed to move—I felt Harakas hook one toe underneath my thigh; I finally shifted, and the dancers began an agonizingly slow sequence of movements. The next hour was like this: Hassabi and Harakas, eyes locked, pressuring the audience to move and react, thereby gradually gaining space. Show was a tense, exhausting combination of immersive dance and installation.
The stakes are high for a performance art biennial in the performance capital of the world. After a few weeks of marathon spectating, I’m left imagining what a parallel program to Performa might look like, and what the consequences might be of demarcating a world of “visual art performance” (Performa’s term for what it showcases) versus regular old performance. Aside from quality, the main difference was the crowd: How many members of the art world–centric Performa audience saw Move, ERS, the Civilians, Mac, Hassabi, or any of the other intelligent, explorative performers working regularly in New York? Do we need the white cube to legitimize the black box? Did Performa convince its crowds that there is value in seeing performance outside the biennial pilgrimage? Here’s hoping.
Left: Ragnar Kjartansson, Bliss, 2011. (Photo: Paula Court) Right: Artist Ragnar Kjartansson with Young Kim. (Photo: Billy Farrell Agency)
BEFORE RAGNAR KJARTANSSON was named the winner of the Malcolm Award, Young Kim, longtime companion of prize namesake Malcolm McLaren, told us how it would make the winner feel: “This award will let at least one artist know that people do love him, people do care.” For those assembled at the Bowery Hotel on Monday night to celebrate the end of Performa 11, Kim shared memories of her late partner moping about e-mails that curators did not answer. She quoted him, affecting a pathetic tone: “No one loves me. No one’s gotten back.” If Kjartansson still has doubts about the universal love for him, I would like to dispel them now. I didn’t catch his Bliss—the final aria of The Marriage of Figaro performed on loop for twelve hours—but from the moment I got to the Bowery people wouldn’t stop gushing about it. Again and again, it was described as “magical,” “gorgeous,” “delirious.”
This was the fourth run for Performa but the first time it handed out a ten-thousand-dollar prize. “What does Malcolm McLaren have to do with performance art?” one woman muttered. The story goes like this: Diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2009, McLaren was unable to realize his project that had been commissioned by Mark Beasley for that year’s edition of Performa. And so Beasley established the Malcolm Award—a bid to memorialize his own curatorial work. “I like all my babies,” RoseLee Goldberg, Performa’s director, said when she opened the night’s ceremonies. “I’m out of this award idea, except to honor Malcolm. Malcolm wouldn’t want an award either.”
At least by recognizing Kjartansson, the biennial got a chance to affirm the persisting importance of low-tech—albeit high-maintenance—performance art in a year when most of the commissions relied on projectors, streaming video, and other devices that require profuse wiring. I saw some of the wholly body-centric events on the program, but they were at its periphery, and they declared their formal ties to the art of the past. At the Performa Hub there was a charmingly clumsy read-through of a 1925 Russian pageant-play about the Paris Commune. Tyler Ashley led a Constructivist workout on the High Line. It culminated in a biomechanics lessons and a peppy reading of a Rodchenko manifesto in the crotch of the Standard—the fancy hotel that looks like a Soviet housing project.
The telesthetic longing that we now know McLaren to have felt so sharply figured centrally in Frances Stark’s Put a Song in Your Thing, presented at Abrons Art Center at the end of Performa’s first week. It wove the artist’s feelings about the positive reception of her recent film for the Venice Biennale into Gchat romances with randy Italians, lines of which were projected on scrims. At times Stark would briefly walk onstage to shade the scrims with her own silhouette. In the piece’s most dramatic part, she marveled at a towering sound system while dressed as a rotary phone, mute and basking in music. Liz Magic Laser’s four-act play I Feel Your Pain transposed the televised emoting of contemporary politics to the audience’s immediate surroundings. Actors moved around the School of Visual Arts Theatre as they performed adapted transcripts of the news and their images were fed live to the big screen. On the first night, Jerry Saltz said “love” when an actor put a mike to his face and asked: “What’s the number one trait of an alpha male?” When the question was posed again the following night, Emily Roysdon, unprompted, shouted: “Entitlement!”
Left: Liz Magic Laser, I Feel Your Pain, 2011. (Photo: Paula Court) Right: Performa director RoseLee Goldberg with Laurie Anderson. (Photo: Billy Farrell Agency)
I suppose the beauty of Bliss was in the way that Kjartansson saturated the experience of an old masterpiece by splicing it with a contemporary experience of media time—repetition, sampling, sudden immersion in a continuous flow. In other commissions, humbler forms of those same techniques were used to consider the afterlives of a work of art as it encounters new audiences. In Three Performances in Search of Tennessee, James Franco and Laurel Nakadate pretended to audition a long line of young women for the part of Laura in The Glass Menagerie. One posed in a swimsuit and high heels. Another freaked out and called her mom. All struggled to read the script from a screen while facing the audience. Few could keep up with the slyly loose and hammy rendition of the male lead delivered by a spectrally indifferent Franco on video as the “real” Franco looked on. Ming Wong’s Persona Performa, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, lifted gestures, hairdos, and lines from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and choreographed them for a cast sourced locally, in “Actoria.” It felt off. Were the performers feeling Bergman, or trying to embody Wong’s idea of how he felt Bergman?
Franco and Nakadate’s staged audition drew clearer lines between themselves, their participants, and the Tennessee Williams play. But what irked me most about Performa Persona was that the premiere fell on the same night as Hatsune Miku’s appearance at the IMAX theater in Times Square—an event with no relation whatsoever to Performa or the art world. Miku is an anime character with a synthesized voice, backed up by live bands. Before November 10, she had never been beamed to America. Blame Performa that I blew my chance to see the world’s first holographic pop star.
Left: Christophe Laudamiel. Right: The audience at “Le Parfum: The Power of Fragrance.” (All photos: Junenoire Mitchell)
“BE INSPIRED. BE TRANSPORTED.” Boxes of pungent resins and distilled extracts––benzoin siam, amyl salicylate, oakmoss, coumarin, styrax, and musk ketone––passed under our noses as Christophe Laudamiel, an “osmocurator” from the Osmothèque in Versailles, wound down to his presentation’s departing words. It was the first in a series of three twilight events in November at the French Institute Alliance Française dwelling on “Le Parfum: The Power of Fragrance.” It was the curator-perfumer-scientist-entrepreneur’s debut lecture in New York. It was a packed house.
“What an aberration New York has no fragrance museum,” exhaled the woman behind me while the man to my right, an astrologer, muttered something about perfuming as the highest art. “But scents are just so difficult to describe. Kant once wrote that it is impossible to find a word devoted exclusively to smell. He called it ‘taste at a distance.’ ”
Laudamiel had just regaled us for an hour with stories behind some of the original formulas promulgating around the room that night, all from the venerable Osmothèque, where a few thousand historic fragrances are kept under lock and key in argon gas–filled vaults, most at 54 degrees Fahrenheit. (“It’s the Met of perfumery,” said a woman in the elevator to her friend. Which fragrance would be the Temple of Dendur?)
We sniffed our way through blotters dipped in Eau de la Reine de Hongrie (1347), Eau de Lubin (1798), Jicky (1889), Ambre Antique (1905), and, of course, Chanel No. 5 (1921). And we washed it all down with a sip of the 130 herbs in the Carthusian monk–produced Chartreuse (1605). “Those monks have never shared their secret recipe––religions, perfumes, and secrets have always gone hand in hand,” Laudamiel assured us.
Before he relinquished his podium, the energetic curator imparted one final piece of advice. Rapidly tapping his studded leather bracelet against the lectern to add rhythm to his words, he announced our subject’s three enemies: “Oxygen! Light! Temperature!” Amid the crowd of coiffed art and fashion students, writers, designers, and a few bored husbands, a blonde shot up her hand. “How long does it take before a perfume goes bad?” she pondered. “Oh no,” sighed Laudamiel. “The juice NEVER goes bad.”
“Fragrances are the same on everyone, even if people think they aren’t,” Laudamiel revealed during a panel discussion one week later. This time, though, he wasn’t a presenter but spoke from the audience after being prompted by Dr. Stuart Firestein, chair of Columbia University’s department of biological sciences.
“Olfaction is essentially a New York real estate story,” the prestigious doctor proclaimed, as he described to the rapt audience how our sense of smell has always been a mystery. We can identify roughly ten thousand scents, an impressive fact that has something to do with (very) intricate interactions between odor molecules, retronasal pathways, brain signals, and “a shitload of receptors.”
But to illustrate his points more directly, Firestein asked us to chew on a jellybean while holding our nose. “No smell, right?” he prodded after a few minutes. Indeed, some of our companions had lost track of their senses altogether. “Now breathe in!” Ooooh, went the relieved crowd. It wasn’t a fancy experiment, but it did the trick.
The panel’s moderator, beauty editor Jane Larkworthy (of W), asked why she couldn’t smell her favorite perfume on her own skin after so many years of wearing it. The audience prepared themselves for the panel’s judicious response, pencils ready. “You have to become less faithful!” snapped Olivia Bransbourg of the Paris publishing house ICONOfly. The two additional French panelists, Fabrice Penot, cofounder of niche perfumery Le Labo, and Arnaud Montet, the global director of consumer science at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), nodded in agreement.
An interpretation (or gross generalization) of all the events could go like this: Americans always need/want to know hard details and facts about our perfumes, while the French experts urge us always to be “transported” or “taken on a journey,” as it were.
“Speed Smelling,” the third and final event last Wednesday, gathered a team of nine IFF perfumers to present their latest and greatest. New Yorkers didn’t seem so pleased with being whisked away to “Burning Man” and “2011: A Patchouli Odyssey,” even though they smelled totally great.
Rotating to a different table every seven minutes, the IFF geniuses one by one told small groups of four their stories, the narratives behind their perfumes often competing with our sense of smell. “Imagine yourself in the sacred bath chamber of the Goddess Isis . . . ” began Bruno Jovanovic’s presentation on The Secret of Isis.
Those at my table were surprised by the “petallike,” “dewy,” “wet,” “moody,” “creamy,” “organic” (and so forth) top and middle notes. And as for the “dry down,” that is, when the anchoring base notes really come out: “smoky,” “sensual,” “earthy,” “medicinal,” like “tea, hay, honey.” And finally: “It smells like a mixed drink to me––heavy on the whiskey.”
Such discerning tastes on the Upper East Side.
Now, go take your perfumes out of your bathroom and off your windowsill and put them in the fridge.
Left: Artist Pipilotti Rist with her mother and sister Tamara. Right: Cape Cod Chandelier in the Cinema Manzoni lobby. (All photos: Cathryn Drake)
AFTER A GENTLE RAIN Tuesday evening, Milan was shiny and ethereal for the opening of Pipilotti Rist’s “Parasimpatico,” produced by the Trussardi Foundation. In my haste to make it into the former Cinema Manzoni, the 1950s movie palace in the center of the city that was hosting the show, I mistakenly entered the burlesque cabaret William’s Club le Roi next door. In any case, Rist’s demure incandescent underwear (Cape Cod Chandelier) hanging in the cinema’s lobby would have been perfect in either venue.
The theater had been made into its own kind of erotic carnival. Up the red-carpeted steps, people sat hypnotized by a trippy video, all hallucinogenic colors dripping down the undulating ceiling, starring the red-haired Ewelina Guzik. This was a short section from Rist’s new feature film Pepperminta, a female take on Sgt. Pepper. “Please relax and prepare to experience an orgasm,” the salacious superheroine tells us.
I ducked into the main hall and sat down next to curator Massimiliano Gioni and Beatrice Trussardi to watch the artist pressing and contorting her pretty face against the giant screen in Open My Glade. Disembodied appendages—a breast, an ear, a mouth—floated comically around the perimeter of the space. “Look, it’s kissing the cinema good night,” Gioni observed. Indeed, the whole of the Cinema Manzoni was like a living organism, its walls breathing and oozing the artist’s seductive brand of sugarcoated subversion. Up in the gallery the audience craned their necks to watch Homo Sapiens Sapiens, the video that got shut down by the Vatican during its 2005 run at the San Stae church in Venice. There, the floating Botticelli bodies had evoked paradise, whereas here the reduced focus, framed by an oval cupola, highlighted unsettling details like a hand gently squeezing testicles followed immediately by two others violently crushing oranges. I mentioned to Rist that the video seemed more sexual this time around. “Or is it your mind that has changed?” she asked. Food for thought.
As we walked to the dinner at Café Trussardi, dealer Giò Marconi recounted a debauched evening with a certain German artist at the William’s Club, where they spent two thousand euros on champagne and were surrounded by pretty plumed girls but left bereft. Word had just gone out that Berlusconi was going to resign, though at the time this seemed about as preposterous as the recent retirement announcement of another hometown boy, Maurizio Cattelan, which got more play that evening. Curator Cloe Piccoli and friend-of-Cattelan Paola Manfrin, sitting at the Trussardi bar, discussed the artist’s throwing in the towel. “If he says it, I don’t believe it,” Piccoli announced. “It’s good,” Manfrin responded between bites. “He wants to give space to younger artists.” What could one do but eat the classic Milanese saffron-infused risotto? Dressed in red plaid from head to toe, our pixieish Pippi darted about the crowd while her mother socialized at the bar and her sister Tamara spun her collection of 1960s tunes.
The café, all glass, dissolved with the street beyond, and we watched opera fans waiting outside the stage exit of La Scala for the diva starring in Rossini’s The Lady of the Lake. “It’s the perfect space for an artist who trespasses the idea of cinema,” said Phaidon editor Michele Robecchi, speaking of the Cinema Manzoni. “It’s very, very good,” Hayward curator Stephanie Rosenthal said dreamily. At Gioni’s urging, we stuffed ourselves into a Smart car and sped off to Zoom Bar, followed by Rist and her partner, Balz Roth, who confirmed that he does occasionally appear in Rist’s videos, “but not in those parts.” Once the sympathetic buttafuori gave us the run-down on his paintings adorning the bar’s walls—along with graffiti like FUNKISH! and AMAZING!—Pippi cut out for the night. “She is the most hardworking artist I have ever met,” Gioni told us. Never mind: Rist’s enthusiastic assistant Regula Moser, along with Zoom regular Frank Boehm, newly appointed director of MiArt, stayed on until the wee hours with our happy little crowd to properly christen the freshly appointed hangout.
Left: Dealers Giò Marconi and Pepi Marchetti. Right: Critic Michele Robecchi and dealer Francesca Kaufmann.
WHEN TWO PROTEAN ARTISTS face off against each other, the confrontation can be titillating. So it went last week in Los Angeles, over the Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual artist-designed fundraiser, conceived this year by Marina Abramović. “The shit has hit the fan,” Abramović said on Thursday, when the leaked draft of a letter that choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer wrote, but hadn’t yet sent, to LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch went viral on the Internet.
Rainer was protesting Abramović’s plans for the gala, “An Artist’s Life Manifesto,” scheduled for Saturday, November 12. The “entertainment,” Rainer wrote, promised to exploit the young people Abramović was training to perform for such meager pay that it amounted to abuse by the rich. Their job was to either lie naked under plastic skeletons revolving on the $100,000 dinner tables, or poke their heads through the $50,000 and $25,000 table tops while turning themselves on lazy Susans and locking eyes with guests throughout the evening.
The prospect of this “grotesque spectacle,” the outraged Rainer wrote, reminded her not of Abramović’s The Artist Is Present, the performance empress’s three-month-long sit at the Museum of Modern Art last year, or of her Nude with Skeleton from 2002, but of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, where fascist sadists sexually abuse beautiful youths. “Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed, and Ms Abramović’s obliviousness to differences in context and to some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others,” Rainer wrote, suggesting that MoCA rename itself “MODFR, or the Museum of Degenerate Fund Raising.”
Left: Dealer Shaun Caley Regen with artist Sue Williams. Right: Artists Adam McEwen and Andrea Bowers.
But it was the contretemps, not the exploitation issue, that notched up the pre-gala buzz. On her Facebook page, one LA artist called Abramović “deluded” and hoped the performers would rebel. Another posted an article about Vanessa Beecroft’s 1998 invitational performance at the Guggenheim Museum, where nearly naked models had to stand for hours while tuxedoed swells stared at them and nobody cried abuse. Yet the controversy barely flickered to life among the artists and curators at Regen Projects’ Thursday night opening for Sue Williams’s sexually scatological paintings, while Abramović joined the frolickers at collector Eugenio López Alonso’s dinner for designer turned photographer Hedi Slimane. But Deitch took the bait and invited Rainer to a rehearsal on Friday. Abramović, though cooperative, was not pleased.
She was especially exercised by the letter’s allusion to fascism, when she had spent her life opposing everything that her parents, Communist Party heroes in the former Yugoslavia, stood for. The gala, I gathered, would be something like a reverse Occupy MoCA, where wealthy, overdressed patrons would be given white lab coats to “democratize” the proceeding. Five hundred people had auditioned to be the heads and nudes on the tables, knowing they would be paid only $150 for their several hours on display. Though the chosen performers had signed confidentiality agreements to ensure the event would come as a surprise, one of them had complained to Rainer and then quit.
At a prerehearsal gathering that turned into a pro-Abramović rally, Rainer appeared a bit shaken by how quickly her unsent letter had gone public, but sat quietly among the ninety performers while Abramović acknowledged her presence and addressed her complaints. The small fee was all the museum could pay, she said, adding that she was getting no fee at all. She was hiring young people not to take advantage but because it took stamina to get through one of her durational pieces. “I’m the idiot,” she said. “I’m sixty-five and still doing this!”
Their performance as gala centerpieces would not be easy, she said, but she was taking every precaution to protect them. Diners would be instructed not to feed them, touch them, talk to them, or disrupt their performance in any way. Guards would make sure they were unmolested, but if anyone wanted to leave, they could walk out at any time. “It’s an experiment,” said Abramović, “not an entertainment. There’s a huge risk of failure, but this is my work.” This was greeted by a tremendous cheer of support and the rehearsal went forward, with Rainer interviewing the performers one by one. “I wonder how she’d like it if I did that at one of her rehearsals,” Abramović sniffed later.
Left: LA MoCA chief curator Paul Schimmel with Susan Jenkins, LA MoCA's manager of exhibition programs. Right: LA MoCA trustees Eli and Edythe Broad and Maria Bell.
That night, at the MoCA annex in the Pacific Design Center, Deitch defended Abramović for curious guests attending the opening of Slimane’s “California Song” photographs. Slimane was invisible in the darkness of an installation that projected his high-contrast, magazine-ready portraits on a cube at the center of the black-box gallery. “Any pictures that large are going to look good,” groused one observer, before moving on to Adam McEwen’s debut at Gagosian in Beverly Hills.
Next morning, an e-mail from Rainer had her “revised” letter attached, this time with dozens of signatures from other artists and writers joining the protest. The gist of it was the same as before, though this time Rainer took special care to respect Abramović’s work while denouncing her use of live heads and women-only nudes as “decorative centerpieces” at the gala to come. She claimed that the performers at the rehearsal were all “young, beautiful, and white” (I saw many black, Latino, and Asian faces, along with several white, not all young). She admitted they appeared both “touching and somewhat comic,” but recoiled at the thought of them being subjected to “possible public humiliation and bodily injury” at the hands of those frolicking donors. “Their cheerful voluntarism says something about the pervasive desperation and cynicism of the art world,” she concluded, “such that young people must become abject table ornaments and clichéd living symbols of mortality in order to assume a novitiate role in the temple of art.”
She had a point, but perhaps she has never seen one of the benefits for the Watermill Center that Robert Wilson creates. Rainer told me that she never goes to openings and was unaware that such celebrity clusterfuck fund-raisers had become common practice, more or less out of necessity. As Abramović said at the rehearsal, “Kings, aristocrats, and popes used to be the supporters of art. Today, in Europe, governments do it. In this country, we have businessmen and they want to be entertained. I want to take a different approach.”
By 7 PM that evening, the museum on Grand Avenue was filling with a parade of patrons who seemed oblivious to the debate. In very short order, I came across last year’s gala artist, Doug Aitken, Americans for the Arts advocate Nora Halpern, Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin, actress Rosanna Arquette, Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman, and artists Mark Bradford, Alex Israel, and Rosson Crow. The latter was on the arm of designer Jeremy Scott and decked out in a vintage yellow gown by Don Loper—“Lucille Ball’s favorite designer,” Crow was quick to point out. Strolling through the collection galleries, I came across former gala artist Francesco Vezzoli (in Prada) with model Shala Monroque (in Rodarte). “I’m happy that Marina can still raise controversy,” Vezzoli said. “I wish the same for me at her age.”
While Minnie Driver, Gwen Stefani, Will Ferrell, Kirsten Dunst, Pamela Anderson, and David LaChapelle walked the red carpet outside, burlesque artist Dita Von Teese (in Jean Paul Gaultier) and sometime filmmaker and jewelry designer Liz Goldwyn (in a vintage red dress) joined the crowd previewing “Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles” and “Kenneth Anger: Icons,” a Hollywood Babylon showcase of Anger’s films and memorabilia, within. “We’re a very creative museum!” said chief curator Paul Schimmel, noting that the shows came on the schedule only recently, and giving the impression he wasn’t all that thrilled at their entry. (His sweeping, and historic, Pacific Standard Time show at MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary took years to pull together.) “You just gotta roll with the punches and all the changes,” he said.
Guards asked everyone to proceed to the humongous dinner tent outside, where one tenet of Abramović’s manifesto was projected over the entrance. “An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist,” it said. Under it, a group of the hired performers helped patrons into their lab coats, though some, like Crow, refused.
Inside, all thought of exploitation quickly faded, as the 769 guests, who included California governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as Beecroft, took their seats before the rotating heads and nudes-with-skeletons and dug into their food unfazed. (It was delicious.) Some people did hold the gaze of the heads; others winked and elicited forbidden giggles. After brief speeches by gala cochairs Eli Broad and Maria Arena Bell, and another by Deitch, who called Abramović and Deborah Harry, the evening’s main entertainment, “giants in their field,” Abramović took the stage to exhort everyone to keep on their lab coats for the sake of the experiment at hand. (Not all obeyed.) She went on to explain that it hadn’t been her idea, but the museum’s, to use only women as the nudes. Artists rarely made manifestos anymore, she said, referring to the gala’s title, adding that they were necessary in these troubled times to establish a “codex of moral and social behavior.”
John Baldessari and Meg Cranston seemed pleased to be seated ringside, where half-naked and very buff pallbearers periodically mounted the catwalk-like stage carrying a shrouded body on a bier. At trustee Wallis Annenberg’s front-and-center table, Governor Brown was smiling but seemed uncomfortable at the nude before him. “That’s a fake vagina, isn’t it?” asked collector Michael Ostin, refusing to believe that the woman on display did not have “some kind of enhancement.”
He was not the only doubter. During Serbian folk singer Svetlana Spajic’s performance of a haunting tune from Robert Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, someone at the table beside mine loudly expressed his displeasure to Broad Foundation curator Joanne Hyler, dealer Sara Watson, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak, and Schimmel. “This is offensive!” he shouted. “This is shit, not art. Who is she kidding? Jeffrey! Yo, Jeffrey! Stop this!” The source turned out to be artist Thomas Houseago, who evidently had imbibed more than his share of the “Rauschenberg Spirit” wines. He continued his diatribe during a reading by the performers of Abramović’s full manifesto (“An artist should not steal ideas from other artists; an artist should not make themselves into an idol . . . ”) before leaving his dinner partners in peace.
Once again, the pallbearers mounted the stage, only this time the person under the shroud was the platinum-haired Harry, who sang her first number from a reclining position on the bier before hopping off to do “Heart of Glass,” followed by a rousing “One Way or Another” that brought much of the cheering, camera phone–wielding audience to its feet. After her final number, two more shrouded bodies were brought onstage. Under them was dessert: two eerily lifelike cakes fashioned to look like Abramović and Harry by LA’s Rosebud Cakes and Raphael Castoriano’s Kreëmart organization. Wielding lethal-looking knives, Abramović joined Harry to cut out the hearts of each of their cakes to a shouting, astonished crowd.
Chaos followed, as guests fought over pieces cut by the bare-chested pallbearers. “I want the breast! Give me the vagina!” they screamed, hardly noticing that Tilda Swinton had arrived for photo ops, looking very much like David Bowie in his Thin White Duke phase. When it was all over, the cut-up cakes resembled mutilated bodies that made for a ghoulish sight.
A man I didn’t know accosted me. “Is it me or was this all about violence against women?” he asked. “It’s you,” I said. “Look at that cake!” he exclaimed. “It’s a horribly mutilated woman with knives in her chest. Doesn’t that bother you?” “It’s a cake,” I said. “It represents all the indignities women have suffered at the hands of men. It is women telling their own history.” Apparently, the point was lost on him. “It’s disgusting,” he replied. I asked his name, which he declined to give. “I’m in the social register!” he growled, brushing past me to let Deitch know that this violence against women would result in the withdrawal of funding from the museum.
“Don’t be afraid of art!” Deitch said, when the man stormed off. “Wow,” he added a moment later. “That was intense.” In the end, the gala raised $2.5 million.
THE RAIN WAS JUST BEGINNING when my plane touched down in Turin on Thursday, November 3, right in the middle of the vernissage for the eighteenth edition of the Artissima art fair. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” one of the fair’s volunteers tried to console me. “I’m sure you didn’t miss much. Italians are always late for everything.”
It wasn’t the Italians I was worried about: All through customs, a friend had been feeding me a malicious stream of texts fabricating Ryan Gosling sightings at the fair. (Did he mean Ryan Gander?) But by the time I arrived at Oval Lingotto Fiere, the fair’s capacious venue, Ryans were the last thing on my mind. There was simply too much going on. Special projects featuring artists both old (“Back to the Future”) and young (“Present Future”) took up entire rows, and at the center of it all was a collection of provisional “pavilions” comprising Lara Favaretto’s “Simple Rational Approximations.” Each of her structures represented a different facet of the ideal contemporary museum and was “illustrated” by a curated project or program of events. For instance, sealed off in the “Education Department” was France Fiction’s The Ink Factory, in which the artist collective painstakingly packed small cartridges of ink—the “substance” of information, rather than its content—to be given away to visitors. Meanwhile, the “Temporary Exhibition” space hosted a public reading, alternating between artist Pierre Bal-Blanc and a rent boy, of the artist’s application to curate the Seventh Berlin Biennale.
Graphic designer Sarah De Bondt helmed the “Publishing Department,” which was responsible for the graphs, pie charts, and informative minutiae punctuating the aisleways and filling the brochure. The fair guide was more decorative than useful. “At least it tells you the temperatures on the opening days of all the previous Artissimas,” Thomas Dane Gallery’s Tom Dingle grinned, tapping a finger on the graph gracing the book’s back cover. “But I have no idea where anything is or when it’s open,” I moaned. “That’s okay. You don’t have to rush here,” another dealer cut in. “This is a cruising fair.”
“The best part about this fair is that it’s actually about the art,” dealer Daniele Balice hummed. He should know, since he had not one but two galleries at Artissima: the Paris-based Balice Hertling and Balice Hertling & Lewis, which was making its first appearance on the fair circuit, a mere month after opening in New York. “Actually, I take that back,” Balice corrected himself, after his BlackBerry reminded him we would need a bigger table for dinner. “The best thing about this fair is the food.”
Testing the theory, we headed to Bastimento for “Italian Soul Food” with select representatives of the Cincinnati jet set, including collector Andy Stillpass and his charming daughter Zoe. Italians Isabella Bortolozzi and collector Josef Dalle Nogare teamed up to translate the menu. “It’s that little red fish.” Blank looks. “You know, those pink fish? From the aquariums?” Blank looks, clouding with concern. “Basta. We’ll let the waiter decide.” The waiter nodded in approval at the decision, and soon our table was steaming with plates of grilled calamari and, well, you know, those pink fish? From the aquariums?
After a grappa for the road, we piled into Dalle Nogare’s Porsche and set off for the fair’s opening festivities at Sala Lutrario, a nightclub designed by Torino’s favorite son, Carlo Mollino. To get us in the mood, Dalle Nogare put on a compilation of another Italian icon, Lucio Battisti. The locals in the car all sang lustily along. “You have to understand,” my seatmate sighed. “This song was the sound track for everyone’s first kiss, like what you listen to out on the beach with a bonfire.”
Left: Dealers Isabella Bortolozzi and Marta Lusena. Right: Gilbert & George.
Once at the club, I was determined to find the dance floor before the grappa got the best of me. I slipped past dealers Martin van Zomeren, Magnus Edensvard, and Diana Stigter on my way to the floor, but found the music somewhat less rousing than the Battisti. (“Not really the place where we can request Rihanna, is it?” a friend whispered, hopefully.) I shifted weight to the almost-rhythm, wondering how it was that curators Peter Eleey and Beatrix Ruf seemed to have no trouble finding their groove. Thankfully, AIDS 3D soon commandeered the DJ booth, and before long the crowd had worked itself into a modish mosh pit.
The next morning, I maneuvered a ride to Castello di Rivoli. While the probably tremendous mountain views were obscured by fog, the persistent drizzle gave a Magic Castle feel to “Arte Povera International,” Germano Celant’s defense of a movement he himself had defined. Staggered by the venue, I attached myself momentarily to a tour standing in front of a Boetti. The guide gave us a conspiratorial eye: “Since this is an art-fair group, I can tell you these things used to go for absolutely nothing, and now . . . ” Feeling that the rest of that sentence would spoil the fairy tale, I ducked into the Giovanni Anselmo room next door.
Friday, I returned to the fair to look around “Back to the Future,” a showcase of artists’ work from the 1970s. Heeding rave reviews about Tomaso Binga, I began at Rome’s Wunderkammern gallery and worked my way around, lingering on Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Rebecca Breitmore” alter ego at Galerie Waldburger. What really stopped me in my tracks, however, were photographs by John Divola lining one side of Laura Bartlett’s booth. “These were taken in an abandoned building on Zuma Beach in LA,” Bartlett pointed out. “It’s amazing how current they look, right?” I agreed, speechless.
My plans for the rest of the evening involved going to prison—i.e., Le Nuove, the provocative site of the alternative art fair “The Others”—but first I wanted to get hypnotized. I had missed every instance of Raimundas Malašauskas’s “The Hypnotic Show” since its very first iteration, in 2008, at Silverman Gallery in San Francisco. Now that the project had taken over the “Storage” unit of Favaretto’s ersatz museum, I was determined to make it, five-person limit be damned.
“You’ve been hypnotized, right?” I asked “Present Future” curator Chris Fitzpatrick, standing in line beside me. He hesitated. “Well, not exactly. I was in the audience at that show at Jessica’s, but in the front row. I guess I got a contact hypnosis.” Artist-hypnotist Marcos Lutyens overheard: “Yeah, that really wasn’t supposed to happen.”
What is supposed to happen is this: Malašauskas recruited four writers to produce thirty different scripts of exhibition scenarios, and then hired a professional hypnotist to talk the participants through the shows. “It explodes the bounds of what’s possible curatorially, but it also allows you to visit historical exhibitions,” Malašauskas explained, showing me scripts for John Cage’s 4'33" and Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. We were escorted down a dark, narrow hallway in the basement of the fair. Chairs were lined up along either side, just like an airplane. “Please make sure your tray tables are in the upright and locked position,” someone mumbled. (Judging from my fellow travelers—Palais de Tokyo director Marc-Olivier Wahler and curator Jean-Max Colard among them—my flight must have been from Paris.) Once entranced, we admired a beautiful Grecian sculpture, which all too abruptly morphed into a wax cast of a penitent Hitler. Unsettling to think my unconscious had actually made it to the Maurizio Cattelan opening, taking place that same day in New York.
Left: AIDS 3D. Right: Dealer Sunny Rahbar.
By the time I left the “exhibition,” I had missed my ride to prison. Thankfully, Artissima’s downtown Lido program, a loose association of temporary art spaces and permanent bars, was on hand to provide other options. At the heart of it all was the Social Club, an ad hoc headquarters set up in a vintage shop. (“Vintage?” an artist scoffed. “I’d just say ‘overpriced.’ That scarf is a hundred euros!”) The crowd was mostly young and local, and the music ranged from the DJ stylings of Carsten Nicolai to Davide Bertocchi’s compilations of artists’ favorite songs. I took a moment to congratulate Michael Quistrebert on his beautiful new bleach paintings at Artissima newcomer Galerie Crèvecoeur before sidling up to the Third Line’s Sunny Rahbar, who was chatting with writers Zain Masud and Gianluigi Ricuperati. From there, the evening devolved into the sort of grappa-fueled revelries that art fairs are built to inspire.
Saturday evening, all the galleries timed their openings to run from 9 PM to midnight, as part of “Contemporary Arts Night in Turin.” But flood warnings (and multicourse dinners) meant that only the truly determined managed to make it to Henrik Olesen at Franco Noero; to Boris Mikhailov at Guido Costa Projects; or to “Voyage around My Room,” Becky Beasley’s curated ode to Carlo Mollino at Norma Mangione. I skipped my Sunday morning flight in hopes of catching the shows, unaware that—Artissima or no—galleries remain closed all day. Instead, I settled for the spectacle of the floodwaters rocketing debris down the river. “Pericoloso!” a policeman half my height shouted, shooing me away from the bridge. My college-elective Italian was not enough to explain to him that if the grappa hadn’t finished me off, I doubted a few more drops of rainwater would.
“AT LEAST 50 PERCENT of the people here are on Prozac.”
Or at least they were according to artist Friedrich Kunath. We were having cocktails in the tented courtyard–cum–hotel lounge at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art+Film Gala last Saturday night. Behind us, a fourteen-piece orchestra played Ennio Morricone film scores; just then they struck up the theme from Amarcord. An artist was conducting a poll: If forced to choose, which male movie star would you sleep with? He chose George Clooney. His friend, standing by, chose Brad Pitt. Neither of these celebrities was on hand at the gala, but plenty of others were. So many that we made a game of spotting individual stars and then making wry, probably stupid commentary about them. Mickey Rourke was the only celebrity we could all agree had serious star power, but maybe it was just that he looked like a human train wreck. Whatever the reason for his magnetism, I ended up following him out of the cocktail tent and up the ramp to the temporary building LACMA had erected for the five-thousand-dollar-a-seat dinner.
One of the chestnuts of LA museum lore is that the art world has more or less failed to capture Hollywood’s attention. Celebrities are often spotted slumming around Chelsea; Culver City less so (though Blum & Poe manages to corral a few; Gagosian too, but that’s Beverly Hills, and, well, that’s Gagosian). Underfunded, sometimes on the brink of bankruptcy, dragging diminutive endowments, the museums could fill their empty coffers—the common wisdom runs—if they could just get Hollywood to pay attention. With rare exceptions of patronage (the Nimoys are awesome supporters) and the occasional red-carpet cameo, this grand project hasn’t gone so well. But LACMA director Michael Govan appears to have cracked the code, less by having the movie industry pay attention to art than by having it pay attention to itself as art.
Hollywood seems to find this an agreeable scenario. “He is a true artist,” Leonardo DiCaprio announced just before a series of clips featuring honoree Clint Eastwood. This statement recalled Govan’s opening speech, in which he announced that, “We intend to recognize motion pictures as one of the greatest art forms not only of our time but of all time.” The two large tables from Warner Bros. roundly approved both statements with voluminous clapping.
I did see Drew Barrymore gushing over a smiling Ed Ruscha, which felt like a rare triumph. I was lucky enough to sit at a table populated mostly by visual artists of the non-Hollywood variety (with the exceptions of Ruscha and Baldessari, the two grandfathers of LA art––and fixtures at every local gala); the unusual suspects included Mark Bradford, Barbara Kruger (“I read you,” she said, which I found genuinely shocking), and Joe Sola. Sola humored me throughout the night on all my attempts in almost but not quite hitting on celebrities, and even offered to play my wingman at one point for a famous actress whose cigarette I lit and then nervously chatted with.
In between the various speeches (Govan, Eva Chow, Govan, DiCaprio, Eastwood), an army of Nehru-collared waiters would swoop out of the wings in near Busby Berkeley perfection. Between them and the stars breaking for the bar, there was a lot to navigate en route to the smoking section. (I bumped into Cameron Diaz busing four drinks to Kate Hudson and friends.) There are many pictures I regret not taking in life; one of them is the tuxedoed and gowned celebrities chain-smoking in line outside the Porta Potties. The chemical effluvia bummed out Balthazar Getty, who tucked into an out-of-the-way service entry to smoke and muttered to me about the smell, as well as the utter uselessness of art critics.
Back inside, it was time for Stevie Wonder. The musician gave a speech, addressing the peculiarity of himself, a blind performer, playing at a benefit for visual art and movies. The band filed in behind him and they began their set with “Higher Ground,” followed by a string of greatest hits including “My Cherie Amour” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The whole situation was so fantastically surreal (or just LA) that if one squinted, it could almost seem a wedding serenaded by a Stevie Wonder cover band. As Wonder launched into “Superstition,” people began to leave their seats and shuffle around the party; only one or two unselfconscious souls actually appeared to be dancing. Looking especially elegant in a ruffled bronze dress, LACMA photo curator Britt Salvesen joined our table and told us stories of her brushes with celebrity that evening. “I don’t think anything in grad school,” she said, “prepared me for sitting at a table with Jon Hamm.”
WHAT’S BETTER: taking home an overpriced picture by a deceased artist, or being seated next to a fashionable one at dinner? Both options were at hand in New York last week, as they are every week. But because the arrival of the fall auction season coincided with the fall benefit season and the opening of Performa 11, the choices came with more pomp and puffery than usual.
Wednesday, November 2, was the day after the sale of modern and Impressionist art tanked at Christie’s, when primary market dealers joined nonprofits like SculptureCenter and the Dia Foundation in putting out their hands to shake a few shekels out of supporters without ruffling any feathers.
Oh, for a healthy scandal to ripple the waters of complacency that even a brief downturn in the market can’t seem to stir. SculptureCenter took the high road by dispensing with commercially sponsored goodie bags in favor of artist-made souvenirs. Before dinner at the Edison Ballroom, a Deco supper club near Times Square, patrons mugged for the camera in Shannon Plumb’s “photo booth,” turning their poses into personalized flip books. For a mere $250, guests could buy the centerpiece on their tables—a clever sculpture of flattened paper cups by Allyson Vieira. Once he realized it was not the pile of extra napkins he first thought, dealer Leo Koenig snapped one up and encouraged everyone at SculptureCenter president Fred Wilson’s table to do the same.
Generosity was in the air for this eighty-year-old institution, based in Long Island City since 2001. Founded by artists as a social club for the purpose of having fun with drink and clay, it is now a modest, million-dollar-a-year operation that director Mary Ceruti praised as “a cost-effective think tank.” To begin the entertainment portion of the evening, Emily Sundblad, the thinking person’s performance artist, gave a speech she had composed on her iPhone on the way to dinner, then sang a Swedish drinking song very much in keeping with the original Clay Club’s mission. (“When I drink I get drunk,” the lyric went. “When I’m drunk I’m beautiful.”) Later on, a tuxedoed Ragnar Kjartansson hammed it up in a Jolson-like performance of two romantic ditties to polite applause.
The civilized tone of this event carried into a Thursday night of divided loyalties. In Chelsea, Claire Fontaine made a bagged–soda can debut at Metro Pictures, while Jon Kessler and Mika Rottenberg brought seven sweating laborers to their eccentric Chakra Juicer, a Performa premiere at Nicole Klagsbrun. The impish Jim Lambie showed up at Anton Kern dressed in zipper-accessorized trousers to match the canvases in a show that also included a giant belt and pieces of shirts preserved in glass jars. “It’s all zippers, belts, and T-shirts—just the basics,” he said, before moving on to DJ his late-night party at the suitably Glaswegian Highland Pub.
Meanwhile, Maurizio Cattelan’s gravity-defying retrospective “All” at the Guggenheim gave the hundreds attending his retirement party of an opening plenty of reason to crane their necks. Replete with trussed-up taxidermy, hanging effigies, and raised fingers, the so-called prankster’s life-in-art hung from the ceiling like a dark night of the soul. “We’re all suspended here,” said an admiring Mera Rubell. “It can all disappear in a heartbeat.”
The spectacle, however, endured the scrutiny of an awed but not entirely fawning crowd that included Marina Abramović, collectors Marty Eisenberg and Dakis Joannou, architect Charles Renfro, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Sarah Morris, while Cattelan cohorts Massimiliano Gioni and Francesco Bonami turned a soigné eye on the ramps from the bar on the rotunda floor. Outside, a stretch limo emblazoned with the logo of Cattelan’s picture magazine, Toilet Paper, sat at the curb like an orphan from the suicidal hang inside, waiting to speed the guest of honor to his Boom Boom Room party downtown.
I thought about hitching a ride, but I was already late for the Armani-sponsored fall benefit for Dia in an antiseptic Tribeca party room so bland that even the combined glamour of guests like Lorraine Bracco, China Chow, Bruce Weber, Parker Posey, Olympia Scarry, Todd Solondz, Hope Atherton, and the Armani-jumpsuited model Karolina Kurkova could not give it character. I am among those who long for Dia’s return to Chelsea, but this location was too far a cry from the elevating environs of the Harlem church where its last several benefits were held.
Nonetheless, it couldn’t have spoken any better to the foundation’s need for capital. Dia loyalists such as Lawrence and Alice Weiner, Terry Winters, Lisa Yuskavage, David Zwirner, Barbara Gladstone, Ingrid Sischy, and Sandra Brant held their ground through a performance by Girl Walk/All Day strange enough to mystify even former Warhol Superstar Taylor Mead. “How far is the elevator?” he said, edging his way across the floor before the W Magazine–sponsored afterparty down the hall could begin. By the time that commenced, Dia president Nathalie de Gunzburg was already out the door.
Fortunately, the Lambie crowd—Tom Eccles, Toby Webster, Matthew Higgs, Andrew Kreps, Michael Joo—was still dancing at the Highland Pub, as if the next spate of openings weren’t just a few hours off. Clearly calculated to catch visiting collectors in town for this week’s contemporary auctions, Friday evening began at Gagosian’s West Twenty-First Street gallery, where Andreas Gursky was showing enormous, vertical, and entirely abstract photographs of a Bangkok river defined by reflected natural light, plus a suite of horizontal, digitally manipulated aerial seas downloaded from NASA satellites.
Across the street, Eva Rothschild brought the bright color of her space-invading sculptures to 303 Gallery. “This is the only non-German show we’re going to see tonight,” Kreps noted, speaking for himself and Berlin dealer Martin Klosterfelde, who accompanied him to Bortolami. There, a leather-jacketed Jonathan Meese was haranguing visitors with a stupidly offensive speech declaiming a “dictatorship of art” that could have changed history, had Hitler been aware of it. I wondered how this act had played in Germany. “Badly,” Klosterfelde said.
At David Zwirner, Neo Rauch and Michaël Borremans attracted a large number of enthusiasts to their new paintings, most of which were also dark but more intriguing. Continuing downtown, I stopped in at Sperone Westwater on the Bowery, where Tom Sachs was showing “Work,” and a lot of it. It certainly took some to move through this awkward, Norman Foster–designed building in the dense crowd circling simulacra that included a salon hair dryer and a sarcophagus-like resin ice chest.
Farther down the Lower East Side, at the Abrons Art Center, Frances Stark fleshed out her obsession with sex-chat texting, and the aggressively sexual Jamaican dance called daggering, in a sold-out Performa program that required a lot of reading on the part of the audience. Dressed in a billowing “telephone dress,” when she wasn’t in a flesh-toned bodysuit, Stark shared the stage with Mark Leckey’s enormous BigBox speakers and dancehall “hype man” Skerrit Bwoy—a stranger to these parts in one of the strangest, and most disturbing, performances of the week.
Left: Mary Hodges with artist Justin Vivian Bond. Right: Frances Stark onstage.
Saturday brought Jim Hodges’s first exhibition with Gladstone, a two-gallery affair that contrasted the ephemeral with the enduring. A longtime AIDS activist, Hodges had installed a Stonehenge-like arrangement of dented boulders “draped” with metallic enamel sheets in the West Twenty-First Street space, and a five-foot-deep wishing well dug into the concrete floor on Twenty-Fourth. Over twenty minutes, a mirrored disco ball descended into the well water from the ceiling and rose back up again, casting planetary shadows on the starry firmament reflecting off the ball.
For a change of pace from this sober and silent testament to death and rebirth, guests only had to walk to the next room, where Hodges had built a stage that literally rained brightly colored paint on the heads of those who dared to walk under it. For a change of scene, the rest only had to get themselves to Del Posto, for a very gay dinner that seated Justin V. Bond, Danh Vo, Lyle Ashton Harris, and VISUAL AIDS associate director Nelson Santos together at what an envious Ari Wiseman called “the fun table.” Hodges’s live-wire sister and father were at another, while artists Jack Pierson and Andrew Lord, Whitney curator Carter Foster, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume, and Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs were scattered about the room.
“This combination of delicacy and power is very rare,” Gladstone said in her toast to Hodges’s work, visibly welling up when he replied with a poignant acknowledgment of what he called her “profound influence” on him. But collector Glenn Fuhrman probably best summed up the show, and the atmosphere around town, by standing to declare, “There really is some powerful something going on over there.”
Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. Right: Artists Jim Hodges and Larry Collins.
ERROL MORRIS IS FASCINATED by the unreliability of images, memories, and the symbiotic, if often deceptive, relationship between them. It seemed fitting, then, that his mere appearance at the New York Public Library last Wednesday night served (for me) as an object lesson in one of his obsessions. While I had been aware of Morris and his remarkable, idiosyncratic documentaries since at least The Thin Blue Line (1988), I’d somehow gotten it into my head that he looked like the subject of his 1999 documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (the titular Mr. Leuchter—bespectacled, physically slight, classically nerdy—appears on the movie’s poster). When Morris took the stage with Live at the NYPL director Paul Holdengraber, I was to my surprise confronted with a large man with white hair who resembled a friendlier Ariel Sharon. The occasion was the publication of Morris’s book of illustrated essays on photography and epistemology titled Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, and my memory’s false substitution of Leuchter for Morris would have made a perfect footnote to his argument.
Morris’s lifelong project as a documentarian, and this book in particular, can be seen as a perversion of the famous anti-dictum—attributed to the eleventh-century Persian Hashishin (or Assassins), beloved of Nietzsche and William S. Burroughs—“Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” For Morris, it is more like: Something is true; everything is permitted (in the quest to find it). The latter clause has a personal edge for the filmmaker: The Thin Blue Line was showered with awards and praise in the year of its release, yet denied admission to the documentary category of the Oscars because of a prohibition against reenactments. Never mind that the arty, multiple-perspective restagings (of a roadside murder of a highway patrolman) involved a Burger King milkshake cascading through the air in slow motion as a Philip Glass score pulsed with inexorable circularity on the sound track; Forensic Files, it wasn’t. Cinema verité, once the province of intellectualized, ideologically motivated filmmakers, had become mainstream Hollywood dogma, and Morris wasn’t following the rules. Since then, both documentary filmmakers and the Academy Awards have fallen under the sway of his influence (he finally won an Oscar in 2003 for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara). The superficial aspects of his style are, like Bob Dylan’s, easy to parody, yet remain strangely compelling.
Morris speaks slowly and deliberately, not unlike the rhythm of his films, and this gave the conversationat the NYPL a halting, if meditative, feel. Holdengraber showed an image of Wittgenstein’s iconic rabbit/duck drawing on the screens surrounding the stage and led Morris (a former philosophy student) into his thesis about “the ambiguity of images.” Discussing two nearly identical 1855 photos by Roger Fenton of a blasted landscape from the Crimean War—one with cannonballs scattered in a roadside ditch, the other with the cannonballs arrayed on the road itself—Morris elaborated on his beef with Susan Sontag, whose book Regarding the Pain of Others seemed to be a negative inspiration for Believing Is Seeing. Morris felt that Sontag had questioned the authenticity of Fenton’s photographs as documentary representations of history because of the conscious arrangement of cannonballs, even though the landscape had certainly seen battle action. This outraged Morris, who perhaps saw in Sontag’s attitude an echo of the vérité fascists who had once found his methods illegitimate for documentary. “Photographs are wormholes into history,” he said, “always with the mystery of ‘What is it?’ ”
Moving on to the infamous snapshots from Abu Ghraib, Morris continued to assail Sontag, who apparently called the photos “obvious.” In making Standard Operating Procedure (2008), about the shots of torture and prisoner abuse from the Iraqi jail, Morris found that the man who originally said he was the person in the Klan-like hood, standing on a box with electrodes attached to his hands, was not the actual person in the photo. This confirmed one of Morris’s assumptions about “historical” or documentary photography. “I’m a connoisseur of error,” he said. “I’m fascinated with how and why people make mistakes. Photos give us confidence that we’re looking at the truth, when it often isn’t the truth at all.” He went on to say that he didn’t think photos were true or false and that, to him, truth seemed linguistic, not imagistic. “All photos are posed,” he maintained. “They take a swatch out of reality. They’re all framed.” There could have been an elephant right outside Fenton’s frameline, Morris joked, and the photographer consciously chose to exclude it, regardless of how many cannonballs he moved. Similarly, the pretense of the vérité documentarians, thinking that “truth” would pop out at the end of their handheld, no-lighting process, was ideologically bankrupt. “Truth doesn’t come through style or presentation. Truth is a quest, a process of discovery.”
Holdengraber played a clip from Psycho (1960), a huge influence on Morris, and the filmmaker shared his early fixation on serial killer Ed Gein, an inspiration for the characters of both Norman Bates and “Buffalo Bill” from The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Morris met his future wife while in Wisconsin to interview Gein at a hospital for the criminally insane. He recalled asking the hospital director if Gein was a cannibal. “Absolutely not!” the director shot back. “I discussed this with Ed, and he said he’d eaten human flesh many times and it tasted awful!” Morris’s mordant sense of humor and morbid fascination with Gein were sources of an early friendship with Werner Herzog, who literally ate his shoe on camera to honor a losing bet with Morris that the latter would never finish his first feature, Gates of Heaven (1978). Referring at once to Mr. Death and his own interviewing style as a filmmaker, Morris deadpanned that wardens say “Please have a seat” to condemned prisoners entering the execution chamber. Turning serious, he inveighed against postmodern relativism: “There’s nothing postmodern about the electric chair.”
TUESDAY NIGHT, Performa 11 launched with the world premiere of Happy Days in the Art World, a play by Nordic performance artistes Elmgreen & Dragset, followed by a gala “live retrospective” (performance installations by the duo) plus cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at Skylight Soho.
There was a buzz in the air as the stylish-looking crowd of culture vultures settled into their seats at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts to await the evening’s first act. Curators, editors, artists, art accumulators, and yentas like moi had ample time to kibitz and gawk at one another. I thought of Impressionist paintings where the audience was the subject of the piece.
“She’s someone,” a pal scanned the crowd for notables. “He’s an important Chicago collector. What’s his name?”
The woman behind us listed every single Prada outfit she could see and said, “It makes me want to throw up. No one in the art world should ever wear Prada again!”
The Prada plethora was either an homage to Prada Marfa—Elmgreen & Dragset’s 2005 roadside attraction in Texas—or at least confirmation of that piece’s continued relevance to an art world where references to art-buying Ukrainian oligarchs still titillate amid the broader cultural backdrop of OWS and impending global economic collapse. “Happy Days in the Art World” indeed.
The play is a riff on Beckett (Sartre’s No Exit came to mind as well). On a minimalist set, two forty-something collaborators wake up on a bunk bed to an existential art-world situation: the midcareer crisis. Stuck in this metaphoric or literal prison, they helpfully spell out how “meta” it all is: “It seems we’ve ended up in one of our own installations . . . We’re like some Scandinavian Laurel & Hardy, or Starsky & Hutch or Siegfried & Roy or—oh, no, Gilbert & George. It’s terrifying.”
Left: Artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Right: Artist Terence Koh, Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, and artist Marina Abramović. (Photo: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)
The best laughs derived from the indignities of the midcareer artist in a “whole city full of artists . . . and all of them young artists, no matter what their actual age,” dependent on the whims of curators and a fickle market primed to pounce on the latest “bright young things.” With one pair of shoes and socks between them, the two philosophize, bicker, and ponder their past and their present impasse.
The conceit of the play was clever, even if the execution became a bit durational. (“They said everything twice,” one person said later, nailing it.) The audience seemed gratified by any insider art-world reference, enjoying rare validation from the stage. As this fiesta of self-referentiality started to feel as long as a Marina piece, I recognized that distinctive performance-art effect where one appreciates the comic “concept” of the thing rather than experiencing the abandon of comedy itself.
A dramaturge could have tightened it up, but it was very well performed by real actors Joseph Fiennes and Charles Edwards as the artists’ alter egos. A highlight was the “post-postmodern” art-gibberish rant delivered with gusto by Kim Criswell that was like Hans Ulrich Obrist on acid. She played the demented SpedEx employee who descends from up above—like a deus ex machina—with the longed-for message from “Achilles Anastasius Stefanolopolus chief curator Nancy Spector.” Like any echt-existential text, the piece is open-ended as the partners settle in to wait indefinitely—not for Godot, but for the well-connected curator to pay them a studio visit.
“I like how they showed their relationship. It was sweet and absurd,” my companion said as we walked out. We skipped the buses lined up to take the fancy crowd a few blocks away to Skylight Soho. (“It would be humiliating to ride the bus,” shuddered a colleague.)
Left and right: Views from Elmgreen & Dragset's live retrospective at Skylight Soho. (Photos: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)
At the “gala,” the door area flashed with what looked like a manic red-carpet situation. A scruffy band of “paparazzi” hooted and snapped away at everyone who walked through the door. As I scurried by with my head down like the fat Kirstie Alley or a criminal, I soon realized it was the first “performance installation” of the miniretrospective: Paparazzi, 2010–11.
The former Ace Gallery was packed with people schmoozing and sipping drinks around the live installations. Two male models (surrogates for the artists in a different piece) reclined on a low square platform, languorously unraveling each other’s white knitted tube skirts, worn with suspenders over nothing but underpants. In another piece, six performers stood around a minimalist-looking round white kitchen counter rhythmically washing dishes, then passing around the sudsy plates. Marina Abramović watched them, entranced: “Terrific!” she beamed. “Sisyphean,” commented someone else. “Very Scandinavian,” said another.
Around the corner from the bar, I noticed people kept a respectful distance from the naked guy relaxing on a black Wegner Ox chair atop a fluffy shag rug. He was listening to an iPod, engrossed in a book. Writer Leslie Camhi peered tentatively to see what he was reading: “An anthology,” she shrugged and then backed away from the installation as if repelled by a naked-guy force field. In contrast, across the huge crowded space, people hovered brazenly close to the couple of naked fellows who were spooning on a cot, like a live reenactment of a Lucian Freud painting.
Viewers were scrutinizing the pair like objects: “It’s shiny,” someone pointed to a bit of scrotum peeking out from behind. Ryan McNamara was fascinated by a tattoo on the guy’s shoulder blade: the tragedy face and the comedy face, linked by a rainbow.
The party was filled with performance art “moments,” commented a veteran observer, who peered at the group of collector types who’d purchased “tables” squished into the conspicuous “VIP” area: “I loved how they cordoned off the ‘1 percent’ on the north side of the room so they could mingle, boringly, alone; do you think it was part of the concept that all the ‘real’ performances took place amid the ‘99 percent’?” Happy Days in the Art World, ladies and gentlemen.
Left and right: Views from Elmgreen & Dragset's live retrospective at Skylight Soho. (Photos: Alexander Porter/BFAnyc.com)
I NEVER REALIZED that when Halloween falls on a Monday, New York celebrates half a Hanukkah’s worth of it, but as the sun went down Friday night I saw last-minute shoppers lining up outside of Ricky’s and costumed overachievers parading on the West Side. On the occasion of its second annual benefit, the online journal Triple Canopy was dressing up as a book—copies of Invalid Format, a dead-tree anthology of texts from the first four issues, were distributed as schwag. 155 Freeman, site of the new editorial office, was still enduring city inspections and too small besides, so the event was held at Picture Ray Studios in Chelsea, owned and operated by William Wegman. The cool dogs were kenneled elsewhere, but the photographer’s green screen set remained. It was the focal point for a clutch of performances organized by Triple Canopy board members Cory Arcangel and Gabrielle Giattino. Eight artists—including Mike Smith, Tom Thayer, Andrea Merkx, and Conrad Ventur—staged short, fun pieces on the green as their image, with video background keyed in, was projected on the big screen: a YouTube playlist filmed before a live studio audience.
It’s probably a good thing that there was no seasonal flair to the entertainment. “I’m going to be a dad for Halloween,” said Ben Coonley. His daughter had been due on the day of the benefit, but she had not yet appeared. To preface his performance, he (facetiously) apologized that her tardiness had spoiled his plans to broadcast live birth footage. His actual act was a talking jockstrap. Jacob Ciocci likewise wore a green bodysuit, but he kept his underwear on the inside and emoted with his head instead: a headbanging semblance of extreme teen angst. Shana Moulton reprised the role of Cynthia from her Whispering Pines, wearing a frumpy housedress that she lifted at the coda, transforming herself into a green stalk on the stage and a swirl of petals on-screen. “That was as dressed up as I’m going to get,” she said after. I didn’t get around to asking Dynasty Handbag about her Halloween plans, but like with Moulton, I find it difficult to imagine her in any costume other than the one she always appears in.
Holiday spirit was stronger downtown at Santos Party House, where Spencer Sweeney and friends threw a Halloween party for Performa. It was attended, albeit briefly, by Adam Lindemann, Amalia Dayan, Beatrix Ruf, Eva Presenhuber, and Claire Bishop. “This is not the Santos I remember,” a friend remarked. The ceiling was covered by an Urs Fischer installation: “celebrity potato chips,” crinkled head shots in color. “They were die-cut in Europe somewhere,” said Johnny Misheff, one of the promoters. I arrived too late for performances by Frank Haines and Yemenwed, but caught the results of the Dennis Oppenheim Memorial Costume Contest, so named at the initiative of Performa director RoseLee Goldberg, who knew how much the late artist loved Halloween. Anna Lundh, a Swedish artist living in Brooklyn, was named runner-up. She wore a square-shouldered suit after David Byrne in his Talking Heads days. (The one he had on at the Triple Canopy benefit was far more conventional.) First prize—an Oppenheim monograph and four tickets to a Performa voguing show—went to Bridget Donahue, associate director of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and codirector of Cleopatra’s gallery in Greenpoint. Her white face, polka-dotted blouse, and jacket emblazoned with bubble text channeled Roy Lichtenstein.
One of the DJs was photographer and curator Tim Barber, who looked ghastly pale under the lights of the booth. “What’s your costume?” I asked. “I’m not wearing one,” he answered. A pretend Playboy Bunny danced with the real Gavin Brown. Robin, with Batman nowhere in sight, canoodled with a sexy cat. Skeleton puppets bobbed behind a gauzy curtain. There was a curator in lederhosen. A few people seemed to be having drug freakouts in the bathroom, but it turned out they were reprising Xavier Cha’s Body Drama, on view last summer at the Whitney. Meanwhile, the music took a sharp turn, from “Monster Mash” and like tunes to hard beats under hollow chords. “You can’t have Halloween without trance”: These words, spoken earlier by artist Anicka Yi, haunted me. The bar dimmed to near-total darkness. The fog machine hissed. I fled, terrified.
Left: Artist Frank Haines performing Francis Heinzfeller at Santos Party House. (Photo: Sissel Kardel) Right: Artist and curator Hanne Mugaas with New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and Light Industry's Ed Halter and Thomas Beard. (Photo: Osvaldo Ponton)