“AN ART FAIR is all art and no context; this was all context and no art,” said a smartly dressed curator navigating the crush of crowds exiting the last panel of the March Meeting, a marathon three-day symposium held by the Sharjah Art Foundation in an air-conditioned room off Calligraphy Square in the midst of Sharjah’s partly reconstructed, two-hundred-year-old Heritage Area. Operating under a relatively defanged rubric, “Working with Artists and Audiences on Commissions and Residencies,” some eighty speakers and panelists expounded on such topics as “Art and Cultural Diplomacy,” “Artists and Audiences,” and, notably, “The Importance of Site.”
“Notably,” because if art’s context was the theme, it was also the rub, animating the event but also giving it a slightly anxious tone. The organization sponsoring this modest conference is, after all, the subject of a vigorous international boycott—a protest against the abrupt dismissal, during the last Sharjah Biennial, of Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian for his role presiding over the public installation of a sculpture that outraged conservative locals. Some of the programming (“The Responsibility of Public Art,” “The Biennial as Commissioning Agent”) seemed only to brush up against, while still awkwardly circumnavigating, this elephant in the room.
Which, if understandable, seemed unfortunate—at times it was hard not to long for some fireworks, some bite. The rewards tended to arrive during presentations on smaller, more peripheral operations: in talks by Kuona Trust director Danda Jaroljmek (about her residency program in Nairobi, Kenya), Adeela Suleman (on her Vasl artists’ collective in Karachi, Pakistan), and Talal Afifi and Areej Zarouq (discussing their Sudan Film Factory), for example.
Left: Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist. Right: 303 Gallery director abroad Mari Spirito, artist Isak Berbic, and MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey.
The schedule, for some, could be grueling, and it rapidly became a cliché among attendees that the best meetings at the March Meeting took place outside, impromptu, in between or even during the talks, as visitors lounged languorously in the sun on beanbags by the entrance to the conference hall, where an endless quantity of coffee and juice was always in fresh supply. And why not? It wasn’t bad mingling—for hours—with a crowd that included New Museum curator Eungie Joo, Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer, Long March Space director Lu Jie, Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf, and Townhouse director William Wells, among a litany of other artists, curators, and writers, and then head back in, if you wanted to, for a talk about the activities of an off-the-beaten-track art space in Cairo.
The charming, down-to-earth Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, president of the Sharjah Art Foundation and daughter of the Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi III, ruler of Sharjah, drives a hybrid car. She also speaks fluent Japanese, hates public speaking, and untags herself in photos on Facebook when she doesn’t like the picture. Her dinner, the final night, took place in the courtyard of Bait Al Naboodah, a two-story, mid-nineteenth-century house where we had assembled every day for a sundrenched lunch. The amiable hum of conversation was briefly interrupted by the arrival of the US consul general to Dubai, Justin Siberell, flanked by eight guards in fatigues.
As the crowd gravitated back to Calligraphy Square for a performance by Tarek Atoui, I took off with 303 Gallery’s “director abroad,” Mari Spirito, to Dubai for the night’s openings. The taxi smoothly carried us past the tall, sinister buildings lining Sheikh Zayed Road to DIFC, or, Dubai International Financial Center, a vast, labyrinthine complex housing financial service institutions, retail outlets, and art galleries. “You could live here and never leave,” marveled Spirito, as we rode up an escalator, lost, only to find yet another long, empty hallway.
Left: Sultan Al-Qassemi and Mandy Merzaban, curator at Barjeel Art Foundation. Right: Artist Ziad Antar.
Another escalator ride later, we were at a celebration for Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia at Gaucho, a restaurant filled with mirrors, gleaming metal fixtures, and chairs upholstered in cowhide. But we’d already missed the party there too, it seemed, and the small crowd—I saw ICE Magazine editor in chief Zeynep Berik Yazıcı, collector Tom H. Tandio, Art Arabia editor Arsalan Mohammad—dwindled quickly.
Back in Sharjah, we wended our way through the dark streets, past a pickup cricket game outside the Sharjah Museum of Art, and on to Calligraphy Square, where Atoui’s performance Revisiting Tarab, was in midstride. By midnight, when we arrived, there were still about a hundred people standing, sitting on chairs, or lying on the beanbags and carpets spread over the square, listening to the cycle of performers, from sound artists to musicians playing ouds and kanuns. Eventually, some in the crowd began to dance. (Not Ruf, but certainly Joo and Noura Al‐Sayeh, architect and curator for the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Bahrain.) When I finally left, a little after two, the performance, on its third encore, was still going strong. (Would it bother the neighbors? “I guess we’ll find out tomorrow,” said Sheikha Hoor, when asked about the 2 AM end time.)
On the final day, a group of us (Art in General’s Anne Barlow, Latitudes’s Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna) took a foundation-sponsored trip to the future site of the Kalba Art Center, a building from the 1970s that was designed to produce fertilizer but has instead been used intermittently to manufacture ice. Kalba is purportedly an hour away by car, but we went by way of a sluggish city bus. The air was cloudy, thick with dust stirred up from sandstorms that had been sweeping through the region, adding strangeness to the landscape: the empty McMansions, plopped, quixotically, in the middle of the desert; the Martian hills; the glittering towers with angular glass facades, some half-finished, that made up the core of Kalba.
Left: Didem Ozbek of Pist in Istanbul; Jude Kelly, artistic director of Southbank Centre; and Witte de With director Defne Ayas. Right: Kunst-Werke curator Susanne Pfeffer with Isak Berbic.
We arrived after two hours, feeling dazed. The factory, sitting beside the parking lot, was large and bland, and in utter disrepair. Hisham Al Madhloum, director of the Sharjah Directorate of Art, began to show us around. “This is where the galleries will be,” he said, gesturing at an empty room, while pigeons flapped around the ceiling.
It looked beautiful—stunning, really. An industrial ruin seated, photogenically, before a strip of cerulean water near the coast of the Strait of Hormuz. “The Sheikha loves those old spaces,” foundation director Judith Greer told me on the way back. “She traveled all along the coast looking for one. Everything’s new here, so people get really attached.”
A view of Doug Aitkens's SONG 1. (All photos: Liz Gorman)
DOUG AITKEN’S SONG 1 took one bunch by surprise: joggers. As Washington’s fit ran their twilight routes on the National Mall on Thursday evening, they inevitably slowed to take in the spectacle, necks craned toward the facades of the Hirshhorn. There, at the Smithsonian museum, or, more specifically, on the museum, Aitken had begun projecting his new video, using eleven mechalike projectors to transform the entire exterior surface of the ring-shaped building into a film screen.
In-the-know onlookers lined up early in the afternoon, lugging lawn chairs from the museum’s patio to the perimeter of its bushy courtyard. Across Jefferson Drive to the museum’s north, families, students, and hundreds of other viewers hugged the walls that enclose the excavated sculpture garden and afford the best view. A hush fell over the mounting crowd at 7:45 PM, when, in the gloaming, the feature started. “Amazeballs,” whispered one young tween.
The artist himself was holed up inside the museum for his premiere. In the building’s basement auditorium, Aitken and Hirshhorn deputy director Kerry Brougher held a discussion before a crowd of three hundred, most of them invited guests and Hirshhorn boosters. (At least a hundred more were turned away at the door.) Aitken spoke with Brougher at length about the live performance of his Black Mirror, staged on a barge off Hydra and starring Chloë Sevigny. SONG 1 has its stars, too, among them actress Tilda Swinton and a panoply of musicians, from Beck to No Age, performing Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s old standard “I Only Have Eyes for You.” All told, Aitken commissioned about forty different recordings of the song, most of which actually made their way into the looping video.
Left: Collectors Ludmila Cafritz, Conrad Cafritz, and Mera Rubell. Right: Artist Doug Aitken.
Of the work at hand, Aitken spoke only briefly, and often let metaphor carry his meaning. “Liquid architecture” was his go-to phrase. “Can you make architecture that has a certain tempo?” Aitken asked. (Yes, he told me later: SONG 1 is sixty beats per minute.) Others were more direct about SONG 1’s purpose. “This is the world’s greatest drive-in,” said one local.
“My first journey to the Hirshhorn was courtesy of Richard [Koshalek],” Aitken said. The artist explained that the museum’s director had brought him in to discuss a renovation of the bookstore. Plans changed somewhat. “What is a book?” Aitken asked the crowd. “A book is knowledge; knowledge is illumination; illumination is light.”
After the lecture, guests ventured out to see SONG 1. It was night proper by then, and many Washingtonian families had already departed; clusters of people could still be found on blankets all along the courtyard lawn, while early arrivals maintained their vigils in their perimeter chairs, apparently determined to watch the spectacle until its midnight close.
Later, guests made their way back inside for a reception on the museum’s third floor, held under the light of Lucio Fontana’s neon curlicue sculpture. Friends of the Hirshhorn, many of them new, from the West Coast and New York, drank wine and nibbled on Chinese food. To these out-of-towners, Washington’s National Mall revealed its greatest limitation: There are few suitable sites for an afterparty. The lobby eventually cleared, with clutches of VIPs scattering for late-night destinations elsewhere.
As guests searched for taxis, an hour or so still remained for Aitken’s mesmerizing video to do its work. And so it did—the Flamingos’ aching shoo-wap-shoo-wap-shoo-wap echoing around federal Washington. Couples on blankets stayed to the last, making out obliviously as midnight gathered.
Left: Baltimore Museum of Art curator Kristen Hileman with independent curator Laura Roulet. Right: Betty Koshalek, Hirshhorn Museum director Richard Koshalek, and dealer Lisa Spellman.
LAST FRIDAY, cover artist Sturtevant took over the Moderna Museet with her new exhibition “Bild över bild” (Image over Image), her first show in Scandinavia, which travels to the Kunsthalle Zurich at the end of the year. Friends, curators, dealers, and artists came from all over the world to celebrate the interrogative pioneer who questioned art’s autonomy.
During the opening, Sturtevant raised her arms and made several hip-hop hand gestures while shouting, “Wow, it’s cybernetic style!” Fans (including me) responded with a round of laughter and applause before attacking the meatballs and gravlax. Daniel Birnbaum, the Moderna Museet’s director, was very happy and told me that Sturtevant, in a way, had always been present here. “It’s like we’ve been waiting for her. She’s in the museum’s DNA.”
This is hardly an exaggeration. Two artists whose works are crucial to Sturtevant’s career—Warhol and Duchamp—are also constitutive to the institution’s history. (The former had his first European show here, and the museum has one of the largest collections of the latter.) Furthermore, as Fredrik Liew, the show’s impeccable curator, explained, “We have a history of confronting authenticity via important replicas, like Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, made by Ulf Linde.” Sturtevant shows a series of them.
Even my taxi driver told me that he wanted to see this exhibition because of its resonance with the infamous scandal of the Brillo boxes remade by Pontus Hultén, the museum’s founder. (A quite complex vision, in fact!) “Maybe those issues are in Sweden’s genetic code,” Birnbaum added. “From H&M to IKEA and the Pirate Bay, we’re familiar with replicas, repetitions, series, copyright, etc.”
No invitation was needed to get into this laid-back opening. The exhibition, which was organized in six rooms to be visited clockwise, opens and closes with videos, the digital medium most lately befitting this artist. If some visitors to the museum are still attached to Sturtevant’s “historic” pieces, like her repetition of Warhol’s giant flowers, others preferred the new pieces produced specifically for the show, such as Pacman, in which her name is eaten by the titular video game beastie, and John Waters Dorothy Malone’s Collar, based on Waters’s work.
During the dinner, Sturtevant thanked everyone present who had helped her when, in 1986, she returned to the art scene, and the context was ready to understand her works not as copies. Everyone was there, from her longtime dealers Thaddaeus Ropac, Anthony Reynolds, and Florence Bonnefous to museum directors Udo Kittelmann and Fabrice Hergott and curators like Caroline Bourgeois. Sturtevant specifically mentioned her daughter and producer, Loren Muzzey.
The wine flowed freely and everyone nonchalantly smoked grass on the terrace, which served to heat up the atmosphere considerably. Then, amid incessant giggling, everyone headed to the bar in the Grand Hotel to finish off the evening. Everyone except Sturtevant, that is, who went to bed; she wanted to be in top shape the next day, because she was the opening speaker at the symposium “Beyond Cynicism: Political Forums of Opposition, Protest, and Provocation in Art.” Moderated by Nina Möntmann and held in the museum’s auditorium, the event also included the philosopher Peter Osborne, Hito Steyerl, and the indispensable Diedrich Diederichsen.
Needless to say, a talk by Sturtevant on, for instance, “The Powerful Pull of Simulacra” is always a performance. But if you had been expecting a clear explanation of her work, you would probably have left feeling frustrated: “I never explain, but try to push the limits between articulation and visibility.” When someone in the audience asked if her work was conceptual, she answered with the following anecdote: “If a girl is being pestered by a guy in a bar, she should say, ‘Excuse me, you have to go to the toilet’—That’s conceptual thinking!” Of course, none of the students from the Royal Institute of Art dared to ask the grande dame of art any more questions. But everyone heartily applauded the Diesel ad on the screen behind her that read, STUPIDITY IS THE NEW CHIC!
Most everyone tried not to be too chic that weekend, and we boned up on the catalogue (whose cover features an inflatable sex doll) and reread Stéphanie Moisdon’s text on Sturtevant’s VERTICAL MONAD, a video installation that reads aloud the opening pages of Spinoza’s Ethics in Latin. You'll be happy to hear that Sturtevant is planning to stage an opera on that text (the Spinoza, not the Moisdon).
It was finally time to leave for the airport and return to Paris, where Sturtevant will stay before flying to New York in a few weeks. In May, she’ll give the same talk at Gavin Brown. Next year Semiotext(e) will release a monograph on her work, the first ever in English, by Bruce Hainley. All good news, to which we say, more! “It’s crazy, she is American and she’s had no museum shows there for twenty-five years,” artist Trisha Donnelly pointed out. Hallo . . . America? Don’t be too late—she is a Golden Lion!
IN THE THIRD MAN, the soulless black marketeer played by Orson Welles considered the relative merits of the Swiss approach to life and politics: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s not entirely fair; they also produced Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century political philosopher, novelist, composer, and citizen of Geneva whose work on inequality and the social contract continues to inspire and bedevil students, thinkers, and activists from across the political spectrum. Part of “ThinkSwiss: Genève Meets New York: A Festival of Global Ideas Born in Geneva,” last Friday night’s event gathered Rousseau scholars, journalists, Occupy Wall Street organizers, and politicians to discuss the question, “What would Rousseau say about our democracies if he were among us today?”
Demos senior fellow Benjamin Barber took the stage and ebulliently outlined the evening. Rousseau thought that commerce and private property were incompatible with democracy, he said, and this problem is still with us today in an America desperately clinging to its sense of exceptionalism (“exceptional because one in four children live in poverty”). He told the packed room that the panel would proceed in three stages: first the scholars, then the journalists/activists, then the politicians. All would remain onstage, tightly arrayed in director’s chairs. The scholars took their seats: Guillaume Chenevière, author of a book on Rousseau; Nannerl Keohane, Princeton professor of French political thought; and Victor Gourevitch, distinguished Rousseau translator, scholar, and, as it turned out, Buzzkill Emeritus of the evening. Having some trouble grasping the operational principles of the directional microphone, Gourevitch threw a cold bucket of water over Barber’s enthusiasm and the premise of the entire event by saying, “I don’t know how I fit into this program; Rousseau was a conservative, not a revolutionary.”
Whether or not they privately agreed with Gourevitch’s assessment, Barber, Chenevière, and Keohane intuitively sensed that this was not the best way to begin a two-hour-long, ten-person panel discussion that was clearly and hopefully skewed toward the idea of Rousseau as a godfather of radical egalitarianism, a kind of White (wig) Panther avant la lettre. Of course, like any interesting person, Rousseau was a mass of contradictions in his life and thought, at one point even writing, “Forgive me my contradictions, but I cannot think without them.” To cite one of a host of examples, Rousseau was a Calvinist who didn’t believe in original sin, which is like being a Marxist who doesn’t believe in the alienation of labor.
The paradoxes of Rousseau, however, are what make him a subject of lively debate in sociopolitical circles to this day and indeed what made this panel possible. Partly proving Gourevitch’s point while trying to counter it, Barber mentioned that Robespierre carried a copy of The Social Contract in his pocket during and after the French Revolution. “It’s not Rousseau’s fault that Robespierre behaved as he did,” Gourevitch replied, wearily. Chenevière and Keohane more effectively problematized Gourevitch’s stance by reading some pretty rad-sounding quotes from Rousseau’s writings. Gourevitch was having none of it: “Rousseau thought that the ideal form of government was a democracy of the aristocracy. He would be opposed to all trends in liberal thought today: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness . . . ” Harsh, dude.
The second wave of panelists was ushered in: Laura Flanders, liberal journalist and broadcaster; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Amin Husain, Occupy Wall Street organizer. (Art historian Simon Schama was supposed to be in this bunch but was mysteriously absent.) Arm in sling, Husain appeared to have made time for this panel between bouts of Chicago ’68-style police brutality. (In truth, he is currently in the Whitney Independent Study Program.) A former political philosophy student and lawyer, Husain insisted without prompting that he was not a spokesperson for the Occupy movement and said he thought Rousseau was a “tortured realist” when he read him in college. “Occupy is presenting a structural critique,” Husain said, “not limited to capitalism and wealth.”
Muhammad riffed persuasively on the slave-labor roots of capitalism and the American economy, noting that the Fourteenth Amendment, originally crafted to protect newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction, was serially abused by case law in the following decades to lay the foundation for racist “states’ rights” arguments and the doctrine of corporate personhood. Flanders called Occupy Wall Street a “rumbling,” the beginning of a sense that things are not right. Somebody raised one of Rousseau’s most famous quotes: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” For a split second, the audience basked in the lefty resonance of this statement until ol’ bucket-brigade Gourevitch interjected, “Rousseau was trying to show people how to make the chains legitimate.”
At that point, the former politicians were invited onstage: Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York and, as its attorney general, the “Sheriff of Wall Street”; Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey and chairman of the 9/11 Commission; and Pascal Couchepin, former president of the Swiss Confederation. Couchepin said it was “dangerous to guess what Rousseau would have thought of this assembly. Democracy was a utopian concept that somehow succeeded.” He noted that American politics are now far more ideological than in Europe, implying that Europe had tried all the potential ideologies and sensibly realized that they all end up causing wars. For my money, Kean, the type of moderate Eisenhower Republican all but extinct today, delivered the quote of the evening: “We used to fight our own wars and pay for them—everyone was involved. We’re now doing wars by proxy. When everyone’s involved, you have less wars.” Word.
Spitzer, queried about his legal activism against the excesses of Wall Street, said that to be a transformative politician, one must be ready to be intensely unpopular. (This had added, perhaps unintentional, resonance coming from him.) Americans have largely exited the political discussion, he said, and Occupy is the first murmuring of a voice. Husain, who has a sort of dumb angel quality about him—not naïveté but an improbably open, childlike wonder in the face of relentless billy clubs and tear gas volleys—maintained that “the old labels—left, right, Democrat, Republican—don’t work. The point of the General Assembly is to show how diverse people can work together. Occupy is trying to open the conversation.”
With that, Barber opened the floor to questions. A line of academics, activists, and loons with blogs formed in front of a standing mic positioned in the middle aisle. Some asked wacky questions; others attempted to read manifestos or promote their websites. Most notable was a bearded young Occupier in a wool hat who relinquished his space in line to several people behind him. Asked why by Flanders, he said, “I saw a line full of white men, and I thought it was time for a woman to speak.” I pinched myself. I moved back to New York from the Bay Area in 1998 and now they have people like that . . . here? Impressive.
Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” boomed from the PA as people got up to leave. (“Anarchy in the UK” had played on the way in.) The PE was appropriate, less for Chuck D’s revolutionary lyrics than for the Bomb Squad’s dense sample collages, as the entire evening felt like a slicing, dicing, sampling, and repurposing of Rousseau’s thought to differing, at times perplexing, ends. All with Victor Gourevitch as the anti–Flavor Flav, a hype man in reverse who quietly debunked what everyone was saying instead of egging them on with a well-timed “Yeeaah, Boyeee!” The man can rock the mic—that is, when he knows where to point it.
Left: Independent codirectors Laura Mitterand and Jayne Drost Johnson. Right: Dealer Andrew Kreps (right) at the Independent. (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)
WHILE THE OVERLAP between the Armory Show and the ADAA Art Show has always caused a bit of confusion as to whose week it really is, the rise of the Independent art fair has complicated what counts as a “satellite.” Last Thursday, the third incarnation of Independent, which again took over the three upper floors of the former Dia Center in Chelsea, lived up to the promise of its name with a showing too strong to be tagged with the term “parallel project.”
Most everyone at the opening that afternoon was in an unseasonably good mood, especially on the roof terrace, where visitors were too busy basking in the sun to take particular notice of fairer fairgoers like James Franco or Chelsea Clinton. Was the outbreak of solar flares to blame? “I’ve been nervous about the extra radiation,” Michael Stipe confessed, with a wary glance at his cell phone. “But what if it’s a good thing? I mean, look around: Everyone you see is smiling.”
This edition, the Independent may have lost some of the nonprofit presence that once gave it its edgier energy, but it’s at least managed to maintain its sunny feel. This is partially due to the redesigned layout by Christian Wassmann, which let daylight stream into the wide-open spaces, for a cleaner, more navigable format. Alas, the architectural adjustments could do little to save the building from its slender stairwells or tiny unisex bathrooms. “I have to sit across from the same people all day long,” a dealer moaned over a bottle of wine at her booth. “There are just certain things I would rather not know about them.”
Left: Dealer Stuart Shave (center) at Modern Art at the Independent. Right: Dealer Maureen Paley at the Independent. (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)
gb agency used one part of its sizable nook to restage Mac Adams’s 1976 murder mystery–as-installation, Black Mail. Gallery director Solène Guillier guided Aspen Art Museum curator Jacob Proctor and me through the work. “You have to really spend some time snooping to catch all the clues,” she explained, then proceeded to systematically point them all out to us. Maureen Paley had a captivating early film by Daria Martin, while at Sprüth Magers, Robert Elfgen’s automatically collapsing sculpture sent hearts racing (particular among those who had their backs turned to admire the sweeping cerulean carpet piece by Thea Djordjzadze). Tucked away in a fourth-floor corner, 47 Canal offered a dark combination: Anicka Yi’s “hyperemotional feminist tableau” (an installation devolving on the Girl Scouts’ recent declaration that 2012 is the “year of the girl”) and a meringue-y, erotic painting by Trevor Shimizu.
As the crowds thickened and the sun began to set, we had the option of two performances: Mary Ellen Carroll at Soho’s Third Streaming and a mysterious collaboration between Wade Guyton and Stephen Prina at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. I settled for the latter, which was more geographically accommodating (read: directly across the street). Curator Pati Hertling, Djordjadze, and I arrived with twenty minutes to spare but were turned away at the door. “All of the gas masks have already been handed out,” we were briskly informed. That sentence alone was enough of a happening for us.
Friday afternoon I reveled in “Spring/Break” at Soho’s Old School, a project that invited curators, not galleries, to present art. (The map featured a subtle disclaimer: THIS CAN BE AN ART FAIR.) I had come to see specific shows by curators Cecelia Stucker, Alex Freedman, and Maureen Sullivan, the last of whom knocked me over with a stunning video installation by Simon Lee. Also threatening my sense of gravity were the Sp33dGuided Segway tours offered by artists Dora Budor and Maja Cule, who zipped guests through an improvised obstacle course in the courtyard before exiting down a long, fluorescent-lit hallway and onto Mott Street. On my way out (on foot, thankfully), the guards handed me a souvenir Perrier and then asked to check my bag “for art.” I couldn’t resist: “How do you know what’s art?” The guards traded glances. “Well, you know, we’re just supposed to look for things we can’t understand.” Touché.
Next I checked out the debut of the new Canal Street gallery Jason Alexander before heading up to Stadium, where curators Karen Archey and David Harper were hosting the latest from “BCC,” an ingenious series of exhibitions for which all of the materials must be digitally transferred to the space. For this iteration, a set of instructions was passed from one artist to another (Sol LeWitt meets social networking). For one piece, Brussels-based Bitsy Knox had been paired with performance artist Ann Hirsch, whose critique of media representations of women includes a stint on the VH1 “reality” show Frank the Entertainer. “Ann was supposed to respond to a blog Bitsy created about things she has lost.” Harper explained, stepping over a pile of crumpled Kleenex. “She basically just sat on the floor and cried for an hour. It was actually pretty intense.”
Sunday looked like another full day, but at least Saturday offered some reprieve. The main stop on my list was the second edition of the Dependent Art Fair, which had relocated from the Sheraton Hotel in Chelsea to a cozy Comfort Inn on Ludlow Street. While there was none of last year’s elevator-melee, the tiny rooms required some shameless elbowing to enter into the temporary spaces for Ramiken Crucible, Foxy Production, and a joint venture from Cleopatra’s and the Shandanken Project. To actually see the installed work, one often had to get on, if not in, the bed. (“I gave up trying to resist,” Silvershed’s Patrick Meagher shrugged from underneath the mustard-colored comforter, where he lay draped in artwork.) The galleries were commanded to shut their doors at 8 PM on the dot, but judging from the sudden swell in muffled noises at 8:01 PM, the festivities only got rowdier behind closed doors. Contemplating my options, I sent a stairwell text—“still at the dependent fair”—to a dealer friend I was to meet for dinner. Her astonished reply: “U went back to the Armory?”
BJÖRK GUÐMUNDSDÓTTIR, elfin pop savant and, with the recent release of her multimedia project Biophilia, Iceland’s leading iPad bore, may be a perky charmer, but her team is as chilly as their employer’s home. Asking this aloof trio whether photography was permitted at the singer-songwriter’s Thursday afternoon Armory Show Open Forum Panel with performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson (part of a slew of Scandinavian-focused talks at the fair), I received the decision, delivered with relish: “You know what? No.” Video was verboten too, as were interviews, recording, eating, drinking, impertinence… Oh, and if you didn’t have a white wristband, forget about getting in anyway.
Once inside, of course, everyone snapped blithely away as Björk, Kjartansson, and moderator Markús Thór Andrésson chatted among themselves onstage. The clean-cut guys wore sensible jackets; our heroine rocked a dark red velvet dress with mystic amulet and lime-green veil. In other words: business as usual. The topic was “accumulation and regeneration,” to which a jovially improvising Andrésson added “interaction and repetition and…united nations” before exhorting the assembled to “be in the here and now!” Kicking off by reflecting on her recent experience of performing in a format closer to a theatrical residency than a concert, Björk, rolling her rs magnificently, mourned “the old rrrrrock-’n’-rrrrroller in me” but expressed appreciation for new and more varied audience reactions (perhaps not such a surprising effect when shifting venues from Roseland to the New York Hall of Science).
Kjartansson, who performed the final aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Abrons Arts Center for twelve hours straight as his contribution to last year’s Performa festival, characterized his own experience as quasi-spiritual: “It was like a humanistic religious experiment,” he enthused, “and Mozart makes a pretty good high priest.” Asked about the utility of repetition, he joked: “We aim for the same, always, because then it becomes spiritual. That’s the cheap trick of religion!” Admitting to the escapist kick of performing, he continued with a more altruistic-sounding “You have to give to receive—that’s what we do in show biz!” before turning to Björk and adding “You scream your lungs out!” “Tell me about it,” she sighed.
Casting Björk as “the futurist” and Kjartansson—his groans notwithstanding—as “the nostalgist,” Andrésson lauded both artists’ ability to engage with contemporary culture—his beloved “here and now.” “I’m a history buff,” Kjartansson conceded, “but I find culture so fascinating…” He trailed off, realizing how vague this must sound. “Uh, where am I going? Culture is fascinating… I’m on a roll!” By now all three speakers had gone from relaxed to chummy to positively silly. Kjartansson pulled out another plum: “It’s OK to use stuff but not to steal stuff,” he opined, seemingly expecting a rapturous response. The crowd, fans of Abbie Hoffman, perhaps, or simply raised on appropriation, were nonplussed. Björk’s subsequent non sequitur characterization of her colleague as “a radical spring-cleaningist,” though clearly well intentioned, didn’t help.
Björk, of course, is a lover of such exotic imagery, especially when it involves the wonders of nature, and chose this moment to launch into an extended paean to explosions and eruptions and volcanoes and Mars and Jupiter and… “That’s some hard-core shit!” she piped breathlessly, moving on to describe the effect on one’s worldview of observing—or imagining observing—the earth from space. “I’m like Kofi Annan!” she concluded. If being a grown-up Björk looks and sounds like fun, one can only imagine what larks a junior Björk must have had. “My journey to school was a half-hour walk through fossils,” she revealed. “We live in Iceland,” explained Kjartansson, “where there’s a lot of nature. But, really, everything is nature.”
The discussion carried on in much the same vein, with Björk providing the occasional insight into her personality as a collaborator (“When it comes to music, I’m a tyrant, I’m really bossy. You should see me, it’s really bad!”) and Kjartansson casting various pearls of wisdom (“I think we all have a teacher and a pupil inside of us and we just need to introduce them to one another”), until it emerged that they were actually related in some way, and had shared an early mentor, a “very grand character” who plied them with sherry as schoolkids and taught them how to sing. Kjartansson: “She lived in our basement and she was the twentieth century, basically. She would tell me about her friends Messiaen and Kokoschka. And she had an ugly voice, but in a beautiful way.”
Asked, with a giggle, for “very serious and intellectual questions only, please,” the crowd took Andrésson’s request earnestly, going so far as to read out lengthy quotes and ask the speakers expectantly whether they, too, had achieved “the loss of the ego and the abandonment of the self.” Björk discussed a recent interest—“I’ve been researching shamanism, trying to get past the New Age shit”—until another questioner brought things crashing down to earth in embarrassing fashion. “Could you sing for us,” she wheedled, “pleeeease?” Björk just giggled and pointed to Kjartansson: “He knows how to yodel!” But there was to be no singing or yodeling, and the event came to a close with a final silly question—“Are we past cool?”—and a final silly answer from the irrepressible Kjartansson—“I think art has always been about being cool…. Famous last words.”
ARMORY ARTS WEEK in New York is not Miami Basel. The air isn’t balmy, the parties aren’t excessive, the product promotions are chill, and the art fairs—at least ten this year—are just another weave in the fabric of New York life. That leaves the art world to ogle itself without pesky intrusions from celebrities, who largely stayed away this time around.
To start the week’s engines, the intrepid nonprofit Art Production Fund chose last Monday night to unveil its latest public commission: Josephine Meckseper’s Manhattan Oil Project, featuring a pair of full-scale pump jacks working the ground of the only remaining piece of undeveloped property in the Manhattan theater district.
Donated by the Schubert Organization for temporary use by the APF, the land is the latest to fall prey to art-world designs in this wonderfully crass neighborhood. Guests could escape the blustery winds at a reception for the artist at the Playwright Celtic Pub next door. Festooned with paper shamrocks in anticipation of Saint Patrick’s Day, this old New York tavern powered the pumps (which visitors could see through the windows) via a long cable from its basement, while waiters passed fried chili peppers and sliders to a complement of friends and supporters who included Meckseper’s dealer Andrea Rosen; collector and expectant father Glenn Fuhrman; Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer; artist friends like John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Lisa Yuskavage; and of course Richard Phillips, Meckseper’s supportive other half.
Meyer would also be on the scene the following night, to unveil the newly restored mural Keith Haring painted in 1989 on the walls of a bathroom in the West Village’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. At the same time, the Swiss Institute hosted the opening of two separate interventions into its new digs in Jeffrey Deitch’s old space in SoHo.
The Swiss-born Glaswegian artist Nicolas Party gave the walls of the front gallery a once-over with cockeyed patches of blue stripes, while curator Pati Hertling, asked to reconfigure the large back space, brought in Oscar Tuazon and his brother Elias Hansen for the job. They tore out the floor and stacked the lumber into discrete sculptures, while artists Zoe Leonard, Klara Lidén, and Adam Pendleton supplied images suggesting other uses for public space on the surrounding walls. As Hertling’s pals repaired to a nearby karaoke bar, Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail got the jump on Armory Show parties with a cozy dinner for gallery artists like Lawrence Weiner, Ryan Gander, and Spencer Finch, friends (Martin Klosterfelde, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume), and staff at the Standard Hotel.
When I arrived at Pier 94 for the fair’s VIP preview the next day, it was immediately clear that the looming threat of Frieze New York, scheduled to open in early May, had made a difference—to the experience of fair-going, that is. A redesign by architects Bade Stageberg Cox provided a soundproof VIP lounge (where the food was appreciably better, if no less outrageously priced), and wider aisles that were filled with open-wallet types perusing the 120 booths, 25 percent fewer than last year. “Everything’s already sold,” said collector Raymond Learsy, who was just getting started with Melva Bucksbaum at 4 PM. “I’m just following the crowd,” said nonexhibiting dealer Jay Gorney, emerging from Sprüth Magers’s closet, so crowded it resembled the Marx Brothers’ stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Also leaving the booth on his way to the fair exit was Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. “I just bought a wonderful Rosemarie Trockel drawing,” Wachs said, rubbing his palms together with glee.
Over the next few hours, however, I still heard complaints, mostly about the quality of the material on hand, which nonetheless continued to feed the still-hungry market. Los Angeles dealer Susanne Vielmetter, a purveyor of rigorously conceptual, hard-to-sell ideas, was literally flush from fending off buyers for works by Whitney Biennial artist Nicole Eisenman, Martin McMurray, and others. “We have the closet filled with paintings so we can rehang every day,” Vielmetter said. The fair’s best-looking booth, a red-carpeted stand shared by galleries Greene Naftali, Krinzinger, and Guido W. Baudach, attracted enthusiasts for the artist Bjarne Melgaard, who had painted Frederick Kiesler furniture and emblazoned the names of queer theorists on four new canvases.
Artist Tomory Dodge was on hand to talk about the abstract paintings that CRG Gallery was selling out before his eyes, but Theaster Gates, who fulfilled his commission as the designated 2012 Armory Show artist by talking to people at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta stand, was nowhere to be seen when I passed by.
I did see Conceptualist pioneer Joseph Kosuth, who was shaking his head at what he called “all the neon” here, though I saw little besides the large pink SCANDINAVIAN PAIN sign hoisted by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the head of the nineteen-gallery-strong Nordic section, organized by Malmö Konsthall director Jacob Fabricius. The sign, Kjartansson said, was there to honor the north countries’ ages-old investment in the culture of angst made famous by Strindberg, Ibsen, and Bergman. “It’s luxury pain these days,” Kjartansson noted of the now prosperous region.
Left: Dealer Carla Chammas, artist Tomory Dodge, and dealer Monica Cardenas. Right: Dealer Lorcan O'Neill.
As far as I could tell, everyone was selling nearly everything, except perhaps for Parisian dealer Laurent Godin, who risked derision by bringing New York a booth full of Osama bin Laden busts by Wang Du. “It’s one of the more difficult works,” Godin conceded, while also calling it a “healthy” presentation. It was not very crowded there.
I couldn’t even wedge my way into Sean Kelly’s booth, hard by the entrance, where artists Janaina Tschäpe, Charles LeDray, Pat Steir, Kosuth, and collector Tony Podesta converged all at once. In the nonprofit section, a performer identified as “Shoplifter” and clothed only in synthetic colored wigs was opening and closing her naked legs in a booth shared by Copenhagen’s Overgaden and the Living Art Museum from Reykjavik. At 5 PM, contortionist-dancers choreographed by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen climbed into stretchy white bags to perform Amorphous Assemblage between fairgoers on the Nordic section’s floor. Few took time out to watch this live presentation, though several tripped over the seeing-eye dog sculpture by Tony Matelli parked outside Leo Koenig’s booth.
Perhaps the dancers’ movements were too disconcerting, unlike the four not-for-sale videos at the Nyehaus/Loretta Howard booth. Cobbled together from hours of previously forgotten footage by octogenarian writer James Salter, the films dated from 1962 and 1963 and showed Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Larry Rivers at work in their studios. Together they amounted to one of the fair’s few peak moments. If the Armory Show is going to hold its ground, it will have to turn a new page on boldness as well as amenities.
The day’s big page-turner, however, turned out to be artist Lucy Dodd, who made her New York solo debut with Alexander May on Wednesday night, at Balice Hertling & Lewis’s cramped gallery in the theater district’s Film Center Building. During the opening, the engaging Dodd commandeered volunteers like artists John Miller and Aura Rosenberg to help turn the monumental, sand-painted canvas pages of a book that took up most of the exhibition space, while she told the story of what she called the “ass-nosed mole.” Writer Anthony Haden-Guest approved. “Conceptual art should tell stories,” he said. “Well, maybe not all of it,” he added after a pause.
At the raucous afterparty, held in a dive piano bar on West Forty-sixth Street called Don’t Tell Mama, Dodd was unceremoniously asked to leave the stage when she tried to offer a song. “It’s my party!” she protested, visibly upset. The neighborhood may be devoted to show business, but if the art mole is really going to make a dent, it has to burrow a little deeper.
ONE OF THE THINGS that makes the contemporary art scene in Morocco so difficult to grasp—and so unlike the cultural infrastructures existing elsewhere in the region—is the fact that it has no center. Casablanca is the commercial hub, Rabat the seat of government. Asilah and Essaouira host major annual festivals for art and music. Tangier lays claim to the literary imagination. Marrakech, with its eleven-year-old film festival and two-year-old art fair, is the destination of choice for an incongruous mix of jet-setting expats, holidaymakers on a budget, and riad-refurbishing fashionistas quick to follow in Yves Saint Laurent’s footsteps. Galleries tend to cluster in Casablanca and Rabat. Serious museums are nonexistent. But in the past decade, an impressive network of independent spaces and artist-led initiatives has spread throughout the country, aided by the ease of inter-city travel and an art-historical narrative that has long assimilated efforts that are ephemeral, episodic, and dispersed.
Last week, however, Marrakech made a strong case for becoming a site of convergence with the opening of the city’s fourth biennale. On Wednesday at Riad El-Fenn—biennale founder Vanessa Branson’s colorful boutique hotel, with its red leather walls, William Kentridge drawings, and Batoul S’Himi world-as-pressure-cooker sculptures—the crowd packed in for a press conference was certainly larger and more eclectic than anyone, including the organizers, could have imagined in advance. Given the high concentration of curatorial brainpower—I took a seat next to Sheena Wagstaff and Ute Meta Bauer, and ran into Frances Morris, Catherine David, Simon Njami, Rasha Salti, Jytte Jensen, and Susanne Pfeffer throughout the day—the audience’s professional experience was also jarringly disproportionate to the main exhibition’s youthful promise.
To be sure, the curators Carson Chan and Nadim Samman are smart and charming, and, however untested they may be on this level of exhibition making, they orchestrated a wonderfully tactile, at times eloquent, and thoroughly intuitive sequence of engagements with cross-disciplinary artworks made by around forty members of their generation, most of them totally unknown, and moreover, they did so under terrible budgetary and bureaucratic conditions. The curators hit the ground running a year ago and laid out an exhibition plan for “Higher Atlas” that relied solely on new works commissioned in response to a specific site. In December, they lost that venue—a sixteenth-century palace—and had to radically reroute everything to an unfinished opera house, a cistern below a mosque, a park, a village abutting a luxury hotel complex, and a former bank building on the edge of Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa El-Fna.
“Forgive our organization,” said Branson. “There are six of us. Everything is a little last-minute.” A former London dealer and the sister of Richard, Branson set up the biennial eight years ago and bankrolls it still, “as a form of redress,” to counter the Bush administration’s vilification of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 and create North Africa’s first trilingual arts extravaganza in the process. This was the first edition to call itself a biennale—past iterations were pegged as festivals, with separate strands for visual art, literature, and film. It was also the first to earn the high patronage of the king, Mohammed VI, a symbolic gesture that came late—that morning—and seemed like signal failure, given that it was his government, formed after elections in November and unprecedented constitutional reforms in July, who had booted Branson’s curators from their palace.
The venue shift was barely mentioned at Riad El-Fenn. That the reasons inconvenienced them but failed to capture their imagination may explain why Chan and Samman went to such lengths to answer questions that were never explicitly asked of them but hung heavy in the air. Why were there so few artists in the biennial from Morocco, the Maghreb, the rest of Africa and the Middle East, particularly against such a rich backdrop of revolution, contestation, and reform? Why did a supposedly trilingual art event drop Arabic at the moment it got an international profile (in a few instances where Arabic does appear, in the catalogue and on the exhibition map, the letters are embarrassingly backward, reading left to right instead of right to left)?
“The great thing about a press conference, seeing so many foreign faces, so many non-Moroccan faces, is that it emphasizes the idea that international culture can really exist and flourish in North Africa,” said Chan. “We didn’t choose artists based on their nationalities but on what they do and their ability to make firsthand encounters. We thought, why not see Marrakech as any other city?”
“We’re not flying artworks in and putting them behind walls,” added Samman. “We’ve been producing this show for two months solid with local artisans, craftsmen, and contractors”—effectively reducing Moroccan participation to the provision of manual labor. “The lead time for an event like this is never enough. To do a survey would have been light, even spurious. Who cares what a young curator from London or Berlin discovers about Moroccan art in such a short time?”
Luckily, the biennial doesn’t hinge on “Higher Atlas” alone. The biennale’s project coordinator, artist Alia Radman, worked with fifty students from Université Cadi Ayyad to create short films documenting the event, including an animation of August Sander–style portraits that leveled the field among artists, welders, security guards, carpenters, and curators. And despite a remarkable video by Katia Kameli and a beautiful quartet in the Koutoubia Cisterns, the real draw was arguably not the main exhibition at all but fifteen parallel programs and a series of talks organized throughout the week by Omar Berrada, who directs the library and translation center at Dar al-Ma’mûn, a residency program tied to the luxury Fellah Hotel eight miles outside the city.
For one thing, all of those ancillary events pulled together some of the more critical minds of the Moroccan art scene, despite murmurings that many artists were actively (if informally) boycotting the biennial. The curator Abdellah Karroum, who curated the last biennial and runs the influential art space L’Appartement 22, was in town from Rabat for “Badiya/Madina,” a performance by the artist Younès Rahmoun. The artist Yto Barrada drove down from Tangier with the filmmaker Sean Gullette for the launch of a new book (in five languages) by the Cinémathèque de Tanger, which she directs. The architect Abderrahim Kassou of Les Abbatoirs de Casablanca, the journalist and playwright Driss Ksikès of DABATEATR in Rabat, the artist Hassan Darsi of the Casablanca artists’ association La Source du Lion, and the art historian Aziz Daki of Atelier 21 all came to speak on Berrada’s panels addressing identity politics, images and the Arab Spring, and the ever-complex relationship between art and public space.
Katarzyna Pieprzak, the author of Imagined Museums: Art and Modernity in Postcolonial Morocco, batted aside some of the more pompous claims made for the biennial by Chan and Samman, and invited everyone “to think more deeply” about the terms of access, dialogue, collaboration, and exchange engendered by the event. After a terrific pair of talks by the curator Rasha Salti (on the abundance of audiovisual material being made by protesters in Syria, including stencils, posters, shadow plays, and videos of demonstrators dancing the dabke in clear view of snipers and tanks) and University of Chicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell (on revolution and counterrevolution in the context of Occupy Wall Street), the Casablanca-based art historian Holiday Powers challenged Berrada to bring the discussion back to Morocco and the yearlong protest movement known as February 20. Given the king’s patronage, she stressed, “This is not a neutral environment.”
Indeed, more than ninety people have self-immolated in Morocco since 2011, in what the newspaper Le Soir Échos rather crassly termed “Bouazizimania,” after the Tunisian street vendor whose death sparked mass protests from Morocco to Yemen last year. The reasons go beyond poverty to the persistent lack of personal freedoms. The current Moroccan regime may be image-conscious, media-savvy, and far friendlier than the last. It may portray itself as the Arab world’s democratizing exception. But it is still an authoritarian state (one of the reasons why this biennial was repeatedly compared to Sharjah, rather than Johannesburg, Bamako, or Dakar). “Refusing to gun down protesters hardly makes a government democratic,” writes the veteran journalist Ahmed Benchemsi in a recent essay on how the regime has outfoxed its opposition. “The legislative elections of November 2011 changed nothing—the king and his entourage retain absolute dominance in every field of public life.” That the tools of this regime are as financial as they are political was clearly giving some biennial attendees second thoughts about funding structures. Berrada, for his part, dodged Powers’s request by suggesting it was a time for questions rather than answers.
So. After a five-day run of exhibition openings, panel discussions, and film screenings; endless fretting about the interns; a nebulous insurrection from within the biennial itself; and an absurd social hierarchy of wristbands, meal tickets, and invitation cards, here are four such queries: Which art scene—local, regional, or international—does the biennial intend to anchor? From Ksikès, how could a perennial event ever hope to sustain a dynamic contemporary art scene in the absence of permanent institutions? From Mitchell, what if a biennial born entirely of private enterprise only serves to create an aesthetic of neoliberalism, to the detriment of contemporary art’s more emancipatory claims? And last, how likely is it that a center in Marrakech will really hold?
Left: Outside The Hayworth. Right: The crowd after the performance. (Photos: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer)
DON’T BE FOOLED: dance is just the most divine distraction. Elad Lassry’s first major foray into live performance last Friday was—like all of his rapidly expanding practice—emphatically and ecstatically a work about pictures. His much anticipated, one-night-only Untitled (Presence 2005) at MacArthur Park’s Hayworth Theater insisted on performance as a kind of durational picture or continuum of infinite potential pictures unfolding within the frame of the stage. Think of it as the first of what will be many pictures making up the artist’s upcoming exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery later this month.
Picture this, for one: The midsize, 1920s-era theater is filled to capacity. In addition to a bunch of notable writers (including Tim Griffin of The Kitchen, which will be hosting Lassry’s next performance), the audience is full of Lassry’s artist peers, from Amanda Ross-Ho and Lisa Lapinski to Ryan Trecartin, Lizzie Fitch, Kaari Upson, and Thomas Demand. There is stillness and a pitch-perfect silence that will last the whole show.
The stage lights come on, exposing a bright, planar tableau. The set is overlapping parallel color blocks: An apple-green, hip-height wall is in front of a taller tan wall with a central egg-shaped cutout that is in front of a canary-yellow wall with a long horizontal window cutout that is in front of a milky white wall with no cutout at all. The cutouts are like apertures. Three female dancers, who at this early point in the evening haven’t really established themselves as “dancers” per se, face us head-on from behind the yellow wall. They stand perfectly still, establishing frontality, direct address, and staring as essential keys for opening up performance-as-picture. Dance is a photo shoot with or without the camera. The lights go down.
Picture two: The same scene, only this time the dancers are prim and proper and looking out a picture window and the set is a theatrical approximation of suburban tract housing, complete with a meticulously trimmed green hedge out front. Who says there’s no room for narrative in rigorous formalism?
Picture three: The lights go up. Add two male dancers in jungle-green button-ups and pants on either side of the egg hole. They pose with arms bent and raised. Subtract one of the three women dancers from the hole in the yellow wall; she glides across the stage, coming into view through the egg hole as she pulls along a looping blue sculpture on wheels that frames her face. The looping blue sculpture is like a giant ribbon pinned to the set and, in as much, is made equivalent to the dancers as compositional objects of a similar scale.
Elad Lassry, Untitled (Presence 2005), 2012. Performance views, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photos: Fredrik Nilson.
The women are in matching magenta button-ups and pants—it will be an American Apparel ad one day if it isn’t already. The striking, monochrome costumes are also uniforms, because these captivating young dancers, all from the elite ranks of the New York City Ballet, are also at times movers and workers, practical and useful employee-types who physically rearrange the mobile set to variously frame the choreographed tableaux.
Lassry specifically based the work’s vignettelike series of affectless movement passages on the marginal choreography danced by the corps ensemble (which is to say not solo or spotlit material) in the background of Balanchine’s modernist “black-and-white ballets.” We see an abstracted stand-in for “dance.” Ballet, like photography and cinema, is another formal language with a grammar and conventions that can be taken apart, repeated, stuttered, digitized, and recombined.
Picture four: This picture has all six of the dancers onstage in male-female pairs, performing the same simple gesture over and over again like a body mantra or gears in a machine. Every picture is a picture of über-precision. Everything is exactly on the mark. The smallest gesture repeated in unison holds my attention: One arm rotates in its socket like a twitchy, record-skipping glitch that is both rigorously mechanical and delightfully ridiculous—deadpan.
Picture five: Two dancers, one on either side of the egg hole, dance the same dance, turning the aperture into kind of mirror.
Elad Lassry, Untitled (Presence 2005), 2012. Performance view, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photo: Fredrik Nilson.
Picture six: Using what Lassry calls my “mental lens” and Jill Johnston once described as “the visual image . . . two inches behind the bridge of my nose,” I can frame the entire composition (which will vary depending on my seat in the audience) as a wide-angle shot. Or I can zoom in and take a picture of a detail on set, like the nearly baroque and utterly exquisite veils of layered shadows (so well lit!) or the small, dark sweat spot under one ballerina’s armpit that was a singular punctum amid the clean, hard perfection.
Picture seven: Can pictures—photographs—capture the pitter-patter sound of a ballerina tip-tip-tapping en pointe?
Picture eight: The set is so colorful and graphic it pops. And when it pops it flattens space like a collage, creating optical illusions and incredible perceptual shifts between performance as flow versus tableau, continuous movement versus discrete shapes. This is the work’s acute tension. Dance as both wave and particle. Amen.
There is a way of looking at things that renders them pictures.
The experience was totally brilliant: “Mediation without representation,” to quote the artist. “Maybe the picture doesn’t have to be a photograph. Maybe it can be a dance.” I’m dying to see more.
MINUTES INTO ITS INSIDER OPENING last Tuesday night, the 2012 Whitney Biennial was already confounding expectations. “It’s not about spectacle,” observed dealer Barbara Gladstone. She was one of nearly two thousand invited guests peering at a show that favors the small gesture and the slow reveal over the monumental, the market-pleasing, and the logic-defying chaos of past editions.
“Radical,” said some in the initially flummoxed crowd. “Thoughtful,” ventured others. I also heard people call it “provincial,” “weird,” and “biennial-light.” But the most accurate term for what curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders had wrought from the show’s fifty-one artists was different.
Even gaining entry was more orderly than usual. Despite the presence of a sidewalk picket line set up by artist-led Occupy Wall Streeters protesting corporate sponsors like Sotheby’s and Deutsche Bank, VIPs such as Parker Posey and Carrie Fisher could sweep through their own entrance unnoticed by the hoi polloi lined up at another. Here, as in every other world where the bread of many is buttered by the few, there were VIPs and very VIPs. As the 7 PM reception got underway, I found Whitney board cochair Brooke Garber Neidich in the lobby, saying good night to MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “I came in with the 5 PM group,” Biesenbach said.
If he was hoping to escape a mob, he needn’t have bothered. Congestion was never an issue at this event, partly because the show’s open-plan installation gave it a lot of breathing room—and a look more akin to the Independent Art Fair rather than any past biennial. What’s more, many works chosen for the show are live theater or dance performances and films that weren’t on the schedule that night, leading some people to call this the first “durational” biennial. “Where’s the Mike Kelley?” asked collector Beth Swofford, unaware that even though the museum had dedicated the whole biennial to him, the recently deceased artist’s “Mobile Homestead” videos, made two years ago in Detroit, wouldn’t appear till May. “But that’s what I came here for!” Swofford protested. “You have to keep coming back,” Whitney director Adam Weinberg told all and sundry. “There’s always more to see.”
As artist Georgia Sagri began a forceful performance on the fifth-floor mezzanine based on the principle of “no work,” dancers in Sarah Michelson’s company began going through their paces in the biennial’s main performance arena on the fourth floor—six thousand square feet of unobstructed space so white it made the Whitney’s darkened “Cyclops” window look like the gate to heaven. “I love movement in space,” said collector Eileen Cohen as she took one of the white chairs in the white bleachers set up on one side of the white floor, painted for the performance with a Dogville-style blueprint of Marcel Breuer’s design for the building. “I really love movement in space,” Cohen said, “especially Sarah Michelson’s. I could stay here all night.”
So could Dawn Kasper, if only the museum would let her. The Los Angeles–based artist has moved the contents of her studio (and, apparently, her life) into a third-floor gallery, where she was nearly lost amid the jumbled furniture and the piles of books, tapes, art supplies, and whatnot of her installation, This Could Be Something if I Let It. For the opening, she invited the all-girl art band Lady Noise to entertain. “That’s Kathleen Kim,” Kasper said, pointing to the group’s violinist. “She’s also an immigration lawyer. So cool!”
The trance-inducing music, and Kasper’s cymbal dropping, attracted a number of listeners, including British artist Haroon Mirza. “This is like Jason Rhoades meets Cabaret Voltaire,” he quipped. But the work that seemed to hypnotize everyone was laid directly on the floor near the elevators, where Sam Lewitt had placed tiny electric fans and audio speakers in gelatinous, bubbling rectangles of an unstable magnetic fluid sometimes used in electronics. No one knew quite what to make of this matmos, but its slightly threatening strangeness suggested the invention of a new form of art, or at least something no one had seen before—outside of a science fair. “This is interesting,” said Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár. “It’s goo, but it’s really good goo.”
That was when I started hearing people say they liked the show, and the encomiums kept on coming. “I like that it looks dirty but isn’t,” architect Charles Renfro said, gazing over the Lewitt, Nicole Eisenman’s monoprints, and Tom Thayer’s suggestive cardboard and cut-paper puppet theater. “The whole show is deceptive,” he added, “but in a good way.”
Jerry Saltz drew me over to a Marsden Hartley portrait of a prizefighter that Nick Mauss had chosen for the outside wall of his contribution—an eclectic selection of historical American artworks installed within his trompe-l’oeil re-creation of a 1930s room at Guerlain in Paris. “Those are the best nipples in the Whitney,” Saltz said, admiring the Hartley. Personally, I’d vote for those in Wu Tsang’s fourth-floor tranny-bar videos.
Heading down to the second floor, I passed Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs going up, all smiles. “The Richard Hawkins collages are just great!” he exclaimed. “And the Kai!” he said, hurrying upward. Kai Althoff, he meant. The natty artist was standing near his hanging screen of loosely woven metallic thread. Its glinting panels divided the floor, veiling K8 Hardy’s faux fashion photographs and assemblages on the wall behind it. “It’s not all here,” Althoff said of his entry, which also includes paintings and a fabric sculpture of a legless, seated torso. The rest, he said, hadn’t yet arrived.
It didn’t matter, at least not to Philippe Vergne. The Dia Foundation director, who cocurated the 2008 Biennial with Chrissie Iles, was beaming with pleasure. “It’s a real, curated exhibition,” he said. “I’m happy about it. It’s very poetic, which is what I like.”
Truth-to-power firebrand LaToya Ruby Frazier dressed for the occasion in a bejeweled, low-cut, translucent silver number that starkly contrasted with the dozen photolithographs spelling out her “Campaign for Braddock Hospital,” the most aggressively social-conscious works in the show. Frazier was definitely on a mission: to counter Levi’s ads that picture her hometown, the depressed—and distressing—Braddock, Pennsylvania, as an ideal American landscape, rather than a former steel town abandoned by a hospital corporation that left many (including her own family) unemployed, sick, and dying. “These corporations are contributing to the demise of the population,” she said.
I could still feel the heat of her outrage as I headed into the lobby, where my knees went weak when I found myself before a personal hero: filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is making his debut as an artist in this biennial. “I didn’t want to be in it,” he said, clutching a glass of wine. “I didn’t think this was the right context for me.” Introducing his wife, Lena, he said, “She convinced me.”
Left: Casey Spooner and Michael Stipe. Right: Dealer Carol Greene and artist Jacqueline Humphries.
The whole evening was beginning to feel like a waking dream. Cushioned by all the warmth and good feelings generated by the curators’ refusal to bow to fashion, I floated into Bill’s Gay Nineties, a grungy onetime speakeasy in midtown. Hidden in plain sight, it was an apt choice for an afterparty that dealers Carol Greene and Daniel Buchholz held for the biennial’s new underground.
“It’s torturing me,” said dealer Richard Telles of the show. “It really makes you think.” Lewitt was clearly glad to be in it. “You have to approach it without the optical stains that other shows put on your retina,” he said, while dealer Miguel Abreu offered more insight into Lewitt’s mind. “He actually spends all his time reading,” Abreu said.
On this night, however, the revelers spent all their time drinking, and by 11 PM the place was filled to capacity with bending elbows and shining faces. Was this New York? Where did all the competing egos and jealous gripers go? Perhaps home to rest up for the biennial’s remaining talks, plays, screenings, classes, and dance concerts—and, no doubt, the many afterparties yet to come.
THE TWO MOST FAMOUS PEOPLE ever born in Málaga, Spain, are Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas. They’ll soon come together when the actor portrays the artist in filmmaker Carlos Saura’s biopic 33 dias. But on Monday, Málaga celebrated a different union, this one between Picasso and Richard Prince. The Prince/Picasso exhibition, which is being held at the Museo Picasso Málaga, was organized in collaboration with the artist’s grandson, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, and his wife, dealer Almine Rech, and the support of their foundation, FABA.
Prince arrived Saturday from New York on a private jet in the company of his friends writer James Frey and dealer Bill Powers, a copy of James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia in hand. He immediately went to check out the installation, done by his studio coordinator, Eric Brown, and the director of the museum, José Lebrero Stals. He was delighted, and changed nothing at all. He told me: “This is a real show!”
The exhibition, which occupies two large Richard Gluckman–designed white marble rooms, consists of a hundred or so works made over the past two years. They all “cannibalize” (to use the current term) rather than “appropriate” Picasso. There’s also a never-before-exhibited series of graphite and watercolors from the early 1970s depicting dancers’ bodies. Proof that Prince had another life before he became a “photographer.”
In their recurrent use of naked female bodies that seem to dance or writhe, Prince’s paintings, collages, and photocollages reference the Master on several levels. There were representations of elephant-like hands and feet, as well as African masks in the place of faces. The bodies are depicted from several angles, and the “geometric” nipples of the women made from nuts and bolts are, of course, a reference to Cubism in general. “It’s a bit like a transformer in slow motion,” Powers suggested.
FABA director François Bellet gave us a special tour that elucidated the links between Prince’s works and the “originals,” which are on view in the permanent collection just a few feet away. Pauline Karpidas, who collects the work of both artists, was overjoyed. She explained to us that Warhol had also “appropriated” Picasso on the basis of drawings from her collection.
If the color palette chosen by Prince was rather grisaille, the weather in Málaga was quite sunny. The Ruiz-Picassos took us to lunch at a popular restaurant on the beach where they grill sardines on a stick over a wood fire; we bought sunglasses from street vendors and were quite happy.
The weekend was like a vacation. Prince and his friends went to the Alhambra in Granada, while we visited the church where Picasso was baptized. The gigantic yacht that used to belong to Paul Allen and now belongs to Qatari Sheikh Abdullah Ben Nasser Al-Thani (also owner of the Málaga football club) was parked in the marina in front of the hotel. In the evening, the guys got together in Prince’s suite to play poker with him and his pal Patrick Seguin. It was all very chic.
On Monday, though, it was back to work, with a press conference and the official opening. Rech and Ruiz-Picasso explained how this project showed Picasso’s influence on contemporary practices, and how Picasso himself had appropriated masters such as El Greco and Velázquez.
Prince, who is rather reserved, agreed to comment on the origin of the project: “I grew up with Picasso, and ever since I was a kid I’ve made drawings in his style. I had the opportunity to rediscover him, and it was a pleasure to use my brush in this way.” On a more spiritual note, he added, “The ability to draw or paint is a God-given talent.” The museum director, whose nickname is Pépé, told me that in this exhibition Prince was measuring himself against a giant, and could now be assured his place in the art canon.
For the opening, numerous collectors, such as Maurice and Tracey Amon and Emilio Ferre, had come all the way from Gstaad, Switzerland, where they were on vacation skiing. Even Tony Shafrazi was there, though he may have been feeling a bit sheepish about Picasso. (In 1974, he spray-painted the words KILL LIES ALL on Guernica when that painting was on view at MoMA.) Larry Gagosian seemed to be the only one missing. Apparently, he was held up at a tribute to Mike Kelley in LA. But the gallery’s Andy Avini did an admirable job as his proxy. A number of artists were also present, including Sylvie Fleury, Joe Bradley, and Matthias Bitzer.
In the evening, Rech and Ruiz-Picasso invited everyone to the extraordinary traditional bodega El Pimpi, with its bullfighter decor, to sample plates of Manchego cheese and Iberian ham and to drink red wine from Andalusia (there was also Coke for the Americans). During the meal there was a flamenco show. The dancer, who looked like she was in a trance, impressed everyone, including dealer Sadie Coles. She had feared, she told me, that someone would ask her to go up onstage and play the castanets. Prince, on the other hand, was not able to get out of the traditional barrel signing before leaving the restaurant. He added his signature to the long list of autographs of stars, from Paloma Picasso to Tony Blair, before going back to his room for one last game of poker.
But he had already won the game. “I used to hang images of Pollock on my wall as well as Franz Kline in his studio,” he said. “I remember at home as a child a Life magazine with Picasso on the cover. I said repeatedly, ‘I feel a connection with these people. They are familiar to me; it’s natural.’ I put myself in that photograph. So if you ask me, ‘Why Picasso, and not Montgomery Clift or Che Guevara?’ This is all I ever wanted to do!”
Left: Dancer at El Pimpi. (Photo: Rik Bas Backer) Right: Richard Prince.