DATELINE: BERLIN. It’s Wednesday, September 12. Assignment: the German capital’s inaugural Art Week—not to be confused with Berlin Art Weekend, run by and for local galleries. Art Week has been conceived by a consortium of eleven organizations that include KW, the Akademie der Kunste, the Nationalgalerie, and two art fairs. They are (uppercase) PREVIEW BERLIN, once a satellite of the failed Art Forum Berlin, and (lowercase) abc art berlin contemporary, the five-year-old fair currently directed by dealers Guido W. Baudach and Alexander Schröder. New exhibitions in galleries and museums across the city further stack the deck. But tonight, the nonprofit Schinkel Pavilion is hosting a performance and exhibition by Cyprien Gaillard, the French artist for whom a demolition is the call of the wild.
The pavilion is the brainchild of its curator, artist Nina Pohl, known to some as the ex-wife of Andreas Gursky. Its exhibition space is a circular room within the hexagonal extension of a mishmash, 1962 building named after Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the architect whose glorious, gothic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul towers over it. The pavilion itself overlooks a yawning construction pit, the stage for Gaillard’s performance. The site was once the location of a perfectly nice castle that was razed for the GDR’s humongous Palace of the Republic, torn down for the purpose of—guess what?—reconstructing the castle. I’m told it will be surrounded by starchitect-designed townhouses that only the very rich arriving in this gentrifying city will be able to afford.
This history is integral to Gaillard’s show, “What It Does to Your City,” “it” meaning the cycle of creative destruction that continually alters the skylines, and the life, of cities like Berlin. The event has drawn a large crowd that stands three-deep at the pavilion’s windows or on its L-shaped terrace, from only a corner of which the performance is visible. Inside, Gaillard is exhibiting single teeth from excavator shovels left to rot in the California desert. Displayed in glass cases on white plinths, they look like relics of the dinosaur age.
Milling about are the ever-present duo of Eva and Adele, Kunst-Werke director Gabriele Horn, the Cologne-based dealer Daniel Schmidt, 032c editor Jörg Koch, Gaillard’s Berlin-based dealer Philomene Magers, and artist Angela Bulloch. The cathedral is aglow in red light coming from the pit, where three clanking, crunching excavators gnash their steel teeth in the smoke-filled air and pirouette to the music of a drum corps playing from an adjacent roof. I’m reminded of Matthew Barney’s clash of mechanical titans in Los Angeles a few years back, though that one was considerably more violent and erotic.
When the machines power down, some people leave but more start to arrive, I’m not sure for what—unless it’s to see Gaillard, who isn’t there. Magers takes me through a labyrinth of construction walls to a broad plaza several streets away, where Gaillard is the lone figure in a cobblestoned landscape so empty and dramatically lit that it feels like the set of a Cold War espionage film. He’s standing over a fluorescently lit, glass-covered room of empty bookshelves sunk into the ground before the state opera house. “This is a memorial to the books that were burned here by the Nazis,” he says. We gaze into it in silence, feeling the weight of history, the basic material of his show. “They are the artifacts of now,” Gaillard says of its elements. “They’re what I have left to work with.”
Left: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár. Right: Dealer Aurel Scheibler.
The city’s real underbelly is its past. So the next day, while dealers are setting up abc and PREVIEW is, well, previewing in a hangar at the old Tempelhopf airport, I feel drawn to the Bunker in Mitte, where Christian and Karen Boros are showing reporters the first new hang of their collection in four years. (Rotation doesn’t seem to be their thing.) The five-story, concrete building is forbidding, but in the grand manner. Built in 1943 by the minions of Albert Speer, it vaguely resembles an Italian palazzo, albeit one with bullet holes drilled into the façade.
A smiling, bald-pated Christian Boros ushers me through the prisonlike door. In the windowless interior, all sense of life as we know it disappears. Hallways are long; the 120 chambers where up to three thousand Berliners once hid from air raids are small, walls are gray and artworks on the ground floor retain a grim palette of black and steel works by Alicia Kwade and Thomas Saraceno. I feel as if I’m in a refrigerator. Upstairs, the genial Karen Boros gives me the backstory as we pass through a generous portion of Klara Lidén’s New Museum show and rooms devoted to Wolfgang Tillmans, Thomas Zipp, and sixteen other artists. The Allies, she says, used the bunker for interrogations after the war. Later, it was a storage facility. In the 1990s, it became a hardcore rave club. In 2003, the Boros’s bought it, cleaned and lit it, and cut through the roof with diamond saws to build the Mies van der Rohe–style penthouse where they live. “The history of Berlin is in our building,” Karen says. It gives me shivers to think of having to hide from bombs in there. Somehow it’s no stretch to imagine doing drugs in the same place. As a private museum, however, it’s a bit creepy.
Back in the brilliant sunlight a few hours later, I feel lost, transported to another realm. It’s great. I’m seeing the world through art, which isn’t the world but its cipher. Familiar faces return at twilight, when I bump into dealers Franco Noero and Pierpaolo Falone with curator Abaseh Mirvali. We cab it to Station Berlin, a former railroad depot, for the vernissage at abc, which is humming with humanity stalking art and each other.
Two mini-fairs lurk within. Up front is MISS READ, displays of art books piled on stacks of industrial pallets. Along one side of the hall is a souk of twenty-seven “initiatives” invited by Stefan Kalmár and Richard Birkett of Artists Space in New York. (The two also collaborated with Mousse on the fair’s partly inscrutable two-volume catalogue.) Their bazaar is buzzing. It was conceived to highlight alternative forms of cultural production, distribution, and exchange, and it does. Participants here display their wares—more books, magazines, T-shirts, mugs, vinyl records, even drinks—on their pallet consignments, each arranged to suit. At Bliss, punching bags that trigger keystrokes on a computer invite viewers to vent at will. Lots of fun. Posters at Triple Canopy are printed with a brilliant takedown of artspeak by Alix Rule and David Levine.
In the fair proper, art is not art but a “position” to contemplate. It still looks like art to me, and some of it is selling, though not at a very brisk pace. An exception is the large painting by Corinne Wasmuht at Johann König, who is hosting nightly dance parties at the Brutalist church where he lives. Laurel Gitlen is holding her ground with edifying ceramic-on-found-furniture works by Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and the leather couch that Leslie Fritz has sneaked in for viewers of Meredith Danluck’s brutal video makes a welcome pit stop. Johnen Galerie is showing a Jeff Wall photo and many of the clothes that are in it. I admire the guts of Daniel Buchholz, whose stand offers nothing but €25 copies of a paperbound catalogue of work by Jack Smith and Antonius Höckelmann. “People are a bit irritated,” gallery director Robert Winkler admits. “They want to know where we are keeping the objects.”
At the close, Peter Currie asks another dealer how he made out. “It’s Berlin,” the man replies. “Expectations are low. I think abc invited everyone but collectors.” Of course, it might have helped if the fair didn’t coincide with Rosh Hashanah, especially in Berlin.
Left: Artist Simon Starling. Right: Dealer Johann König and artist Justin Matherly.
Over a late dinner hosted by Sprüth-Magers’s Andreas Gegner at Café Einstein, everyone drops their forks when Tanja Pol confesses she sold nine paintings. “Of course,” she says, “they were small.” Larger—much larger—is Mike Nelson’s subtle (and nearly undetectable) intervention in a decrepit Mitte house that harbors a Weimar-era theater but has been closed for more than fifty years. He leads the way to it next afternoon, after a neugerriemschneider lunch at Trois Minutes with a starry bunch that includes Tacita Dean, Mathew Hale, Kirsty Bell, Tony Just, Tanya Leighton, Elizabeth Peyton, and the economic Simon Starling, who has replicated his current show in New York at his hosts’ gallery. “It’s the same,” he says. “But it feels a little different.”
After a happy hour with “Al Arabia Al Madfuna,” Wael Shawky’s whale of a show at KW, it’s time for the ceremony awarding the Kathe Kollewitz Prize to Douglas Gordon at Haus der Kunst. Hiding his tattoos under a natty black suit, Gordon awaits his moment with Simon MacDonald, Britain’s ambassador to Germany, in a darkened gallery where small monitors stacked across a platform are playing Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now that the artist has made.
Left: Dealer Alexander Schröder. Right: Publisher Helga Marie and Walter Klosterfelde with dealer Martin Klosterfelde.
The reverent audience is on the mature side, but Tim Noble and Sue Webster signal a hipper crowd at Blain Southern’s money-reeking white cube for Lawrence Weiner’s splash of an opening, though Buchholz might have the edge on cool at his reception for Vincent Fecteau, where I’ve been told to expect “lots of cute young artists.” That was almost true. Maureen Paley has dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany on one arm and Mousse’s Stefano Cernuschi on the other. Tillmans and Bullock are there, as are Birkett and Kalmár, with about a hundred other cuties who walk through a sudden downpour to Mao Thai for a combined dinner with the upstart dealer David Lieske. His show features 1970s painting by Robin Bruch, an American artist whose undeserved obscurity has made her the biggest discovery in the room.
Berlin offers plenty more to see but the weekend brings the closing of Documenta 13, so I hop a train to Kassel. The town is crawling with thousands of regular people willing to stand in long lines for each attraction. The hot ticket is a performance with Zurich’s Theater HORA on Saturday afternoon at the plush red and gold Kaskade Cinema, a collaboration with the choreographer Jérôme Bel. Who should be in the front row but MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “I came over just for this,” he said. “How’s Berlin?”
By the end of this disturbing, elevating, unforgettable performance, Berlin seems a world away. I wasn’t given a program. I didn’t know that the work’s title was Disabled Theater, or that its eleven actors had Down Syndrome and other learning disabilities. Listening to them talk, watching them dance, hearing how they feel about themselves is unnerving and fascinating, and that fascination makes me feel ill at ease and enlightened at the same time.
Afterward it’s hard to think about anything else—until Markus Aulehla and Louise Bürmann, my trusty Documenta guides, lead me to the fantastical concrete and unfired clay sculptures that Adrián Villar Rojas had installed on the Weinberg Terraces overlooking the city. They look like relics of Pompei, without the agony, even though the property once belonged to a family that manufactured weapons for the Nazis. Again, I’m amazed.
That feeling only deepens in Karlsruhe Park. My nostrils flare when I chance on the patchwork tent where Robin Kahn is cooking up a farewell couscous for her project with women from the Western Sahara desert. Between Song Dong’s compost garden and Pierre Huyghe’s Beuysian enclave, we’ve worked up healthy appetites. But before we can get any dinner, sound artist Tarek Atoui begins an electronic set on the steps of the Kunsthalle Fridericianum. I’m so riveted by his movements, I don’t even notice that I’m standing beside Documenta director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She doesn’t want to leave, but by 10 PM she’s sitting with the exhibition’s butterfly-garden artist Kristina Buch, linguist Warren Niesluchowski, and Huyghe at the Kaskade Theater, where Joan Jonas further rearranges our senses by giving an utterly beautiful performance of Reanimation with the jazz pianist Jason Moran.
Have I ever had a more perfect day in art? “Documenta is like a passport,” Christov-Bakargiev says, when we meet late Sunday afternoon to compare notes. “You get a visa to places you can’t usually go.” Art forms don’t interest her as much as attitudes from which artists take action. But don’t call her a curator. “You curate pork to make prosciutto,” she says. Her title is Artistic Director. What has fueled her Documenta is “love as a political force.” Hmm. “An exhibition is not an event, or spectacle, or something you live with. It’s about creating an interesting time.” Over her show’s one hundred days, 860,000 people—its largest number of visitors ever—had one. “Kassel is a town of seriousness,” she concludes. “You don’t joke around with irony here.”
IT WAS RAINING by the time I arrived in Terminal 1 at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Not an unusual state of affairs for the self-proclaimed Garden City, where afternoon downpours are par for the course. But this “kinetic rain” had a somewhat unexpected quality: It was artificial. Produced by art+com, 608 metal droplets fell gently from the ceiling to the accompaniment of soothing Muzak. Stepping up to the check-in counter, it occurred to me that the silvery, liquidlike baubles offered a perfect metaphor for my experiences of the past few days: Even the apparently natural was actually cleverly orchestrated.
I had been in Singapore for the launch of the Gillman Barracks on September 14 (with attendant “satellite events”—aka wining and dining at various art institutions—on the 15th and 16th). The Barracks is the city’s first major art district; there, creativity shakes hands with social engineering under the benign auspices of the Singapore government. The remodeled 1930s military camp, named after British general Sir Webb Gillman, has been converted into a space for peaceful cultural encounters (we hope). Its current occupiers include thirteen galleries from ten countries (Indonesia, Germany, Japan, China, and Singapore, among others). And they’ll be joined shortly by other heavyweights: Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki and Hong Kong’s Pearl Lam are due to land in 2013.
Thus far, the gallery lineup appeared imposing enough (especially on paper): Sundaram Tagore flaunted photographs by Annie Leibovitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Building bridges among various “Asias” was something of a battle cry, since the government has plans to make Singapore “the cultural hub of Asia.” Are there naysayers who think that Hong Kong has stolen a march on the Lion City in this regard? Hong Kong has many prestigious art districts and a growing number of nonprofit research centers (like Art Asia Archive) besides. But the Barracks has noncommercial elements too. The Centre for Contemporary Arts (organizing residencies, research, and exhibitions) will be operational by January, while the Yellow River Arts Centre’s Singapore branch is already charging ahead. “The Gillman Barracks, with its unusual array of galleries and nonprofit spaces, epitomizes the thinking in Singapore about new ecologies of art,” said Kwok Kian Chow, the YRAC’s deputy chairman. “If the crowds and impossible parking at the opening night is any indication, there is an insatiable demand for contemporary art here,” added Tan Boon Hui, the Singapore Art Museum’s youthful director, jumping up and down gleefully.
Whether the crowds came to sample local delights in the form of art, food, or booze was anyone’s guess. Nevertheless… “What a lot of people!” I overheard a perspiring journalist gasp as she toiled up the hilly terrain. (Talk about social climbing!) Wandering around the verdant environs afforded the sweaty pleasure of bumping into old school friends (and their relatives); I waved to Lord Mervyn Davies of the Royal Academy Trust (around for a lunchtime talk on art patronage hosted by the cultural charity Platform) who was engaged in a chat with colorful curator David Elliott (attired in frog-green). Lorenzo Rudolf—now the ubiquitous director of Art Stage Singapore—buzzed around, while curators Hou Hanru and Charles Merewether hurried over the undulating landscape. Meanwhile, Eugene Tan, the handsome Commander of the Barracks, hovered omnisciently over proceedings. Whew!
Unfortunately the galleries didn’t always quite live up to the hype. Given that Yayoi Kusama’s red-spotted fiberglass tentacles can be seen at most Louis Vuitton outlets this season, it wasn’t exactly novel to find a room stuffed with her crazily patterned flower-vegetable hybrids. Nor did Korean painter Hyung Koo Kang’s Crossing Gazes at Mizuma Gallery hold our attention for long—portraits of staring celebrities notwithstanding. Standing under a gigantic black-and-silver picture of buxom Marilyn Munroe, I felt dwarfed and bored.
Left: Dealer Michael Janssen and artist Ricky “Babay” Janitra. Right: Curator David Elliott.
Of course, there were some high points (besides the pink champagne). Berliner Michael Jannsen’s gallery was one. Since his unrenovated premises are currently open to the elements, he invited Indonesian curator Rifky Effendy to “let in” street art. The result was “Blended by Desire,” a clever cocktail of graphic design, graffiti, and video. Ricky “Babay” Janitra’s input was scribbled over a blank wall: A geometric woman with jigsawlike appendages throbbed with projections of colored lights. “The Gillman Barracks was very well organized, even though the quality of galleries and spaces was mixed,” said Tushar Jiwarajka, owner of Mumbai’s Volte Gallery. Rumor has it that he was offered a space here. “I’m planning to open in Singapore next year at another gallery hub,” he added mysteriously. By and large, it was lucky that the opening did not depend on the commercial venues for its intellectual kicks. Also on view throughout the Barracks was Eugene Tan’s curated contribution, “Encounter, Experience, and Environment,” in which sixteen artists homed in on the vast district’s nooks and crannies. In one dusty room, army beds with white mattresses hung suspended from transparent cables tethered to the high ceilings: Singaporean Donna Ong’s eerie And we dreamt we were birds.
By late in the evening on opening night, French champagne mingled happily with Kek Lapis, but not all my ruminations on cultural mixing were agreeable. I wondered what Singaporeans were going to get out of this “international art district,” where only one Singaporean gallery, FOST, has gained admittance. Is the Barracks a means of importing that which local policymakers don’t want to bother fostering within? The issue is reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the spiky-looking Esplanade–Theatres By The Bay (aka “the Durians”), an “international” complex built in 2002. There were fears that so much well-funded competition would put Singapore’s budding thespians at a disadvantage. But it turns out that not all the criticisms leveled at the Esplanade were merited, since government plans to give Singaporean performers a higher profile have borne fruit. Similarly, the Barracks could facilitate Singaporean artists getting exposure. FOST might be the only Singaporean gallery dedicated to local flavors, but other institutions attempted to vary their menu too. (Consider YRAC’s exhibition of conceptually rich drawings by the Singapore-based Indonesian artist Boedi Widjaja.) So maybe I’m being too quick to smell a rat, when really it’s just… a durian?
YOU CAN COMPLAIN about the one-hundred-degree heat when it’s still officially winter. Or the twelve-dollar semifrozen sandwich that’s more Arte Povera than food. You can contemplate sending an urgent plea to Human Rights Watch to ban loud, impromptu performances of the Blue Man Group at art fairs. But if you were an ArtRio visitor last week you could hardly deny the cheerful atmosphere that goes with the setting. Sure, the food was appalling. But you downed that inspired “sandwich” staring at the nineteenth-century castle on the tiny Fiscal Island, in the Guanabara Bay.
And this being Rio, just when you think of waxing poetic about the 1889 ball that brought fame to that island—the last great wasteful pageant of the Brazilian Empire, which would be overthrown within days—you bump into the great-great grandson of the deposed Dom Pedro II. Dom João de Orleans e Bragança, who displays no air of royal entitlement, walked around with a broad smile and a new girlfriend, the artist Cláudia Melli. Unlike the 47 percent of freeloaders populating Mitt Romney’s imagination, he earns his living (and pays his taxes) by making cachaça and running an inn in picturesque Paraty, the seventeenth-century town on the Atlantic coast between Rio and São Paulo.
The second edition of ArtRio was a far bigger event than the first and it attracted sixty international galleries, twice as many as last year. The four founding partners (Alexandre Accioly, Brenda Valansi, Elisângela Valadares, and Luiz Calainho) decided to irk paulistas and the hosts of the São Paulo Bienal, and put Rio in the international arts circuit—in that order, it seems. They are celebrating big numbers, even if the only ones they can officially quote are the visitors (75,000). If you took a brisk walk with a gallery owner, you would hear that a Tarsila do Amaral painting was sold for more than $7.5 million. White Cube might have sold $1 million worth of goods during the private view, even though gallery director Daniela Gareh was far more circumspect in her assessment of ArtRio’s prospects.
Gagosian, the biggest presence, with two showrooms and $130 million worth of art alone on display, unloaded, it is rumored, works by Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Lucio Fontana, and Cecily Brown. (International celebrities such as Damien Hirst, whose presence was announced by several PR teams, never materialized, but a few out-of-town art luminaries—Kenny Scharf, Neville Wakefield, Jean Pigozzi—dropped by Gogo’s big party at the Fasano hotel on the Wednesday of the fair.) More than one visitor who marveled at the muscle of the Gagosian show longed for the gallery’s furniture. It was specially designed by artist Claudia Moreira Salles, whose iron-wood bench was not for sale but will travel to her solo exhibition in New York in 2013. In the huge exhibition set up by Gagosian at a pavilion on the end of the string of piers, the usually shy Salles was overseeing the installation of the stands she designed for sculptures. “I have opted for many shades of gray,” she winked.
Marcio Botner, artist and founding partner of A Gentil Carioca, echoed many exhibitors’ satisfaction with a visit by deep-pocketed collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, which resulted in “interesting” sales. Waltercio Caldas, a contemporary of Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, took a walk with us along the piers that housed his work in two galleries and confessed he couldn’t agree more with John Baldessari’s oft-cited remark about these kinds of events. (You know: For an artist, an art fair is like walking in on your parents having sex.)
And for the exhibitor? No such tortured fantasies but plenty of material for nightmares. Pigeons invaded a string of gallery booths that had no protection from the elements and the place was promptly nicknamed “favelinha” (little slum). “The fair grew too fast,” complained Alberto Magnan, an early supporter and member of this year’s organizing committee. “There is no buyer market to support the size of the fair,” said dealer Gregor Podnar, who sold one piece by Swedish conceptualist Alexander Gutke to a Brazilian institution. A veteran São Paulo gallery owner who, unsurprisingly, reacted to the fair’s many shortcomings as carioquices (a derogatory reference to the behavior of cariocas, Rio natives), said that, in spite of all the headaches, the business was enough that he has to come back next year. “And it’s much fun!” he said. This carioca, who didn’t take the comments personally, couldn’t agree more.
Left: Luis Pérez-Oramas, chief curator of the 30th São Paulo Bienal. Right: Teatro Oficina director José Celso Martinez Corrêa and Serpentine codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist.
“IT IS NOT THE CITY that needs the biennial but the biennial that needs the city,” explained Luis Pérez-Oramas, the MoMA-trained chief curator of the Thirtieth São Paulo Bienal. “Unlike Venice or Documenta, we work in a very complex place.” In Kassel and Venice, the exhibition takes charge. But São Paulo’s is the largest city in the southern hemisphere, the most expensive metropolis in the western hemisphere, and probably a few other superlatives besides. The city bears down, splintering the exhibition experience.
So we held on and took our time with the three thousand or so works battening Oscar Niemeyer’s pavilion in Ibirapuera Park. The often meticulous, systematic art was a lot to process, especially during Tuesday’s professional preview. “Do we have to look at all of these?” a curator cried, stumbling upon hundreds of Horst Ademeit’s assiduously scribbled-on Polaroids.
Many of the 111 artists are unknown or have never shown in a large-scale exhibition of this kind. It’s not about art stars, I read, but art constellations. And then of course those tricky artists who aren’t even “artists,” like the radical French educator Fernand Deligny, or Alfredo Cortina, a Venezuelan mass-media impresario and Conceptualist avant la lettre who for forty-some years took hundreds of deadpan photos of his wife, the poet Elizabeth Schön, against unconventional landscapes. I’m told it’s refreshing to see so many unfamiliar names, even if the cubicle-style installation and imposing architecture of the grand pavilion mutes all but the most bombastic among them.
And still, plenty of real genius. An especially poignant stop on the third floor contrasts the gangly, pockmarked-beautiful world of Mark Morrisroe with Alair Gomes’s furtive, telescopically idealized beach bodies. So it’s a bit depressing that Pérez-Oramas pinned his show with the nonspecific, tenure track–friendly title “The Imminence of Poetics.” (The poets are coming?) “Everyone’s having a hard time criticizing the biennial,” offered one friend by way of passive-aggressive criticism. Critique is rude, I guess. But so is platitude. “It’s so poetic,” people kept telling me.
Left: Artists Sergei Tcherepnin and Jutta Koether. Right: Artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané.
“Lina, va fare un caffè!”
Anyway. You digress, get interrupted, move on to other stuff. “Lina, go make a coffee!” Pietro Maria Bardi used to bark at his wife, Lina Bo Bardi, whenever the subject of politics came up. She was a leftist; he was, I hear, vaguely fascist. Like the Mary Matalin and James Carville of midcentury São Paulo. The artist Cildo Meireles made a recording of the line and piped it over and over into Bo Bardi’s old Casa de Vidro on Wednesday, during the brunch opening of Hans Ulrich Obrists’s (unrelated to the biennial) “the insides are on the outside.”
The late, Roman-born expatriate architect was in some ways the week’s cynosure. The biennial’s most stunning work—three devoted and delirious paintings by Jutta Koether—was installed, parasitically, in the exhibition “Deuses e Madonas” at Bo Bardi’s São Paulo Museum of Art. An Isaac Julien retrospective (also unrelated to the biennial) took over the Bo Bardi–designed SESC Pompéia complex. And on Wednesday night Obrist took us all to another Bo Bardi masterpiece, the Teatro Oficina.
The simple, elastic theater is a total thrill. The “stage,” such as it exists, is decentralized, comprising a long, tall stretch of hallway with windows along one side and platforms along the other. A trapeze hangs ominously near the entrance. A tree grows up and through the building. There are few architectonic directives: It’s difficult to know where one should “put” one’s self. The audience/performer toggle is continuously recalibrated.
I found a chair anyway under some platforms and sat down to watch Obrist’s conversation with Gilbert and George (who were also in his show). The artists’ double-act shtick is pro, burnished to a fine, impenetrable glean.
George: “A man said, ‘You haven’t been to São Paulo since 1981. Do you notice anything different?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘The cemetery’s bigger.’”
Obrist was jovial playing straight man to their straight straight men. Everything was controversial, but inoffensively so, with just a few sparks near the end, when a man pressured G&G on their ongoing polemic to “ban religion.”
George: “The pope killed far more people than Milosevic.”
“Would you also prohibit Dionysus?” he asked.
Gilbert: “We are alone here in the world and we have to find ways to live here with each other. Not with God. We have to find ways to live here with each other and have a nice life.”
Some titters and applause. And then, without warning, Zé Celso, the theater’s charismatic director, stood up, hugged the big tree (which had been gussied up with a bolt of pink cloth), and sauntered toward the group, waving and calling out in singsong Portuguese. Gilbert and George stiffened slightly and watched. My neighbor tried to translate the gist: “You’ve achieved the smallest dimension,” Zé told the artists. “It makes me want to sing a song.”
And Zé did, beautifully. Then he broke out wine and got them all to drink and toast. Obrist asked Zé to talk about his relationship with Bo Bardi, and Zé went on for nearly an hour without interruption. “Well, I had many questions,” Obrist said at the end. “But you seem to have answered them all!” The manic energy of the scene was infectious, the kind of thing that makes you feel, for a moment, like the connections we’re making are real, that everything counts.
From there an early morning plane to Belo Horizonte and then an hour-and-a-half taxi to Brumadinho and the immaculately contrived magical realism of Inhotim. That day the Jurassic art park launched pavilions devoted to the work of Tunga, Lygia Pape, Cristina Iglesias, and Carlos Garaicoa. One golf cart carried us to another golf cart and then to the large Tunga building, which was “hardly anything” a month ago, my companion tells me, but which was now thrumming with action and very much “done.”
Inside, more than one hundred performers “activated” the installations. Scores of “inmates” (“This morning they were gardeners,” I was told) braided long strands of hair. Men in suits wended around the space, dropping their suitcases and letting bones spill onto the floor. Tunga’s dealers, the chic trio comprising Mendes Wood Gallery, offered tours, interpretation, and symbolic guidance, while Inhotim’s charismatic founder, Bernardo Paz, stood near the entrance greeting each guest with bear hugs.
When Paz looks at me, his eyes are blazing: “This will become the most important place in the world,” he says. “Quickly!” All alone in the mad and made-up jungle, I almost buy it.
Left: Inhotim founder Bernardo Paz. Right: Artist Héctor Zamora.
“DID YOU KNOW that when they want to show Korea in movies, they film in Malibu?” a California-based professor divulged from the seat beside me.
Looking out at Gwangju through the bus window, I found it difficult to picture Barbie and Ken cruising their pink convertible around the Buk-gu high-rises. Then again, the city has played host to stranger realities. In 1980, a student uprising here ended in a massacre that forever altered the country’s political history. The Gwangju Biennale was founded fifteen years later as a way to commemorate that legacy of resistance. Since then, the sleepy southern city has redoubled its commitment to the arts: Once the Cradle of Democratization, Gwangju now markets itself as “Happy Creative City Gwangju.” That the biennial would redefine the region so acutely is a slap on the wrists to those who would cynically dismiss each new biennial as just a round of black boxes and misappropriated funds. The city is a testament to the power of art to infiltrate and act upon the political imagination. Or, as curator Nancy Adajania put it, “What Politics cannot do, Art can.”
In 2010, Gwangju learned more about what art can do when Massimiliano Gioni unleashed his tour de force “10,000 Lives.” Taking its name from a poem by Korean poet Ko Un, the eighth edition dismantled the mechanics of the image in an ambitious but coherent manner that, as one respected critic observed, “restored my faith in what a biennial can be.” Two years later, the Ninth Gwangju Biennale, “ROUNDTABLE,” stakes out an equally expansive project, taking on the concept of the individual in relation to the collective.
If Gioni kept his show tight (with a predetermined, nonnegotiable path through the exhibition), “ROUNDTABLE” models itself as an open-ended conversation, channeled by six curators—Adajania, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Mami Kataoka, Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Alia Swastika. Biennial general director Yongwoo Lee trumpeted the new structure as a display of “symbolic harmony”—a premise gently mocked in a performance by the Xijing Men, who, without the use of measuring cups, poured three glasses of juice in a torturously protracted attempt at perfect equality. If there was a “perfect equality” here, however, it only applied to those seated at the table: six young women, each presenting pretty faces of Pan-Asian persuasion. The fresh casting was supposed to be empowering, but the idea of past curators Gioni or Okwui Enwezor meekly pulling up a chair and joining in would be akin to Barbie and Ken cruising Biennale-ro. In other words, this was a roundtable for those not given their own lectern. Or, for that matter, a key to the city, as was bestowed upon Gioni. (Ever genial, the curator tried to remain casual about the tremendous honor: “I don’t know what this key even opens,” he joked. “Has anybody seen a gate around here?”)
As an exhibition, “ROUNDTABLE” resembles a panel discussion played out in space. Rather than meld ideas into a single brainstorming session, each participant maintained strict positions, to the extent that there was even a color-coded system of garage sale–style stickers to identify the curator “responsible” for each piece. (At the opening, a printing snafu meant that a few dots remained in ambiguous black-and-white. “It leaves these pieces open to interpretation,” the PR assistant assured us.) In theory, the color-coding helped connect the work to each curator’s personal subthemes: among them, “Transient Encounters,” “Intimacy, Autonomy, and Anonymity,” and “Back to the Individual Experience” (whose wall text was placed directly in front of the only set of bathrooms anyone could find). In practice, however, this one small design element both pitted the curators against one another in a curatorial land run and undermined some otherwise very articulate works, including those by Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, Fayçal Baghriche, Fouad Elkoury, and xurban_collective.
Left: Artist Kimsooja. Right: Artist Tobias Rehberger.
Thankfully, the rigid distinctions at the main space were relaxed at the off-site venues, including the Mugaksa Temple, a Buddhist complex hidden in the very middle of the city where biennial guests gathered for a welcome dinner. While a temple may seem an unlikely setting, Mugaksa’s charismatic head monk has taken a lively interest in contemporary art, even hosting a day of Jens Hoffmann’s curatorial courses. “He was amazing,” Hoffmann gushed. “He actually gave a lecture!”
While relatively young for a temple (founded only in 1971), Mugaksa has already garnered quite a reputation for its cafeteria, which serves up only what is grown on the property, with no added salt, sugar, or animal products. “Temple food is sacred,” curator Kris Ercums explained over the buffet dinner. “You only take what you can eat, as a sign of respect.” I stared down at the lone tuber covering half of my plate. It had tagged along with a spoonful of what I thought was just greens. Across the table, biennial jury members Deepak Ananth, Alexandra Munroe, and Gioni were playing with a plate of scallion pancakes. “I would feel bad if I didn’t eat this,” I moaned, poking at the offending . . . vegetable? “Don’t feel bad,” Ananth gleefully reprimanded me. “That’s not a Buddhist feeling!” Other less Zen sentiments were expressed by another table, who slipped away for a covert barbecue, followed by a third dinner of fish—a protein overload that ended in a friendly, but no less frantic wrestling match between artists Tobias Rehberger and Simon Dybbroe Møller.
The next morning we returned to the temple to check out installations by Wolfgang Laib and Dane Mitchell, before venturing on to other satellite venues. Seoul-based artist Kim Beom had been a clear favorite within the main project, where he “prepared” a sculpture of a chicken following various stylistic recipes—Cubist, Expressionist, etc. In the Daein Market, he won more fans with Yellow Scream, a Bob Ross–style instructional art video in which Kim demonstrates how to paint sound. Nearby, the Gwangju Cinema was showcasing films by Allan Sekula and the late Chris Marker, as well as an installation by Vertical Submarine. The true treasure was in the back, where Abraham Cruzvillegas was methodically transforming each room of a tiny, dilapidated house into an artwork. “What’s with all these artists taking over buildings?” a writer grumbled, while I wiggled downstairs to get a better look at the comely cubic sculpture stacked in the yard.
Left: Artist Oliver Chanarin. Right: Artist Kim Boem.
That night, the opening ceremonies attracted enormous crowds, who congregated in pods around the multiple high-profile politicians in attendance: in particular, Park Keyn Hae, the former president’s daughter who, as Korea’s reigning “Queen of Elections,” has risen to become a candidate herself. With no hope of pushing past the hordes into the ad hoc arena’s empty seats (there weren’t any), artist Kasia Korczak, writers H. G. Masters and Sohrab Mohebbi, and I grabbed beers and headed to a treacherously steep bit of mud along the outer edges of the seating area. As we watched the festivities unfold before us, our primary concern was to not topple headlong into the crowd. We did, however, enjoy a supreme vantage point as a K-pop star in a sparkly dress took to the stage to croon “Fly Me to the Moon,” before Gioni was called up to receive his key.
That night, the afterparty in the O2 lounge was darkly lit but relatively tame, with the rowdiest elements hunkered down around bar-stations labeled BIENNALE VODKA + CRANBERRYand BIENNALE SCREWDRIVER. I wedged onto a couch with artists Oliver Chanarin, Sophia Al-Maria, and Malak Helmy, until we caught sight of Gioni mouthing “Freedom!” from across the floor. This, it turns out, had less to do with the Democratization Movement and more to do with a club of that moniker.
Resembling a rave at an opera house, Freedom had the kind of preposterous dimensions that made all behavior seem suddenly permissible. Its massive stage area was ringed by a multistoried horseshoe track of private rooms. I didn’t realize these were karaoke booths until later, when, stumbling back into what I thought was the room I had just left, I walked in on Eungie Joo, mic in hand, serenading the screen with unparalleled fervor. Facts, thankfully for everyone, got hazy from there.
The next morning, in spite of the collective hangover, the daylong Workstation program proved to be so smartly structured that each talk—from Boris Groys ruminating on philosopher-photographer Alexandre Kojève to MUKhA curator Nav Haq talking politics of “re-creation” with Wael Shawky—remained engaging to the end. The program’s title was “Where Do We Sit?,” a conjecture that took on more literal implications in the irregular, Tetris-like space constructed for the conference. Groys scored points with his thoughtful examination of biennial syntax, arguing that “while all the artists today may speak the same language, they don’t always say the same things.”
I pondered Groys’s witty aperçu as I watched Jun Yang’s Seoul Fiction for a second time. The film follows a couple on a bus ride across the country. As they evaluate Korea’s evolution, they trade nostalgia-inflected observations like, “Who wants to live in the air?” and “At least no one has to stay at home to watch the house anymore.” The film concludes with the assurance: “Don’t look back, the past will be fine.” A comforting refrain within the context, but there was something maybe dangerously revolutionary in the idea of a biennial that doesn’t look back.
THE FALL ART SEASON got underway in New York against some heavy competition: Fashion Week in the streets, the Democratic Party convention in North Carolina, and Madonna at Yankee Stadium. Despite it all, the art world kept to its own universe. As usual.
Tuesday evening, as Michelle Obama prepared to command televisions across the land, the Swiss Institute held an invitation-only dinner to preview Olaf Breuning’s new half-hour film, Home 3: Homage to New York. The work is a commission from the Métamatic Research Initiative, the foundation created by Dutch collectors Allard and Natascha Jakobs out of a fascination with Jean Tinguely. Dinner guests were greeted by three women in frog costumes from the film, which often indulges in the kind of lowbrow humor that is barely tolerated by the sophisticated types who populate such affairs, but is embraced by those with an affection for Breuning’s chuckling wit, like the entire crew from Metro Pictures.
Other fans included Thomas Hirschhorn, in town to install his show opening this week at Barbara Gladstone, and Gigi and Andrea Kracht, owners of Zurich’s grand Hotel Baur-au-Lac, recently named the best in Switzerland (and maybe anywhere). Conversation among others was strictly back-to-school. Over the summer, both the Whitney Museum’s Scott Rothkopf and the Guggenheim Foundation’s Ari Wiseman shaved their beards, MIT List Center curator João Ribas got married, and Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer and his wife adopted a baby. “It’s a whole new life,” he said.
Yet life went on, virtually unchanged. Paul Kasmin’s private opening on Wednesday for shows by Erik Parker and Saint Clair Cemin attracted usual suspects in the form of sanguine White Columns director Matthew Higgs and artists Peter Saul, Adam Helms, Pattie Cronin, Randy Polumbo, Jules de Balincourt, and Alexis Rockman. All happily repaired to dinner across the street at the Hotel Americano. Saul was especially pleased by Parker’s new paintings—eroticized, richly colored tropical landscapes. “They made me want to paint flowers,” said the venerable scourge of everything. “I think I will.”
Thursday night in Chelsea was like something shot out of a cannon—at a silver screen. Though David Zwirner featured photographs by James Welling and paintings by Toba Khedoori, and Tanya Bonakdar presented paintings by up-and-comer Analia Saban and a sound environment by Susan Philipsz, an unusual number of other shows were devoted to artists’ films, most of some duration. Jesper Just had three at James Cohan, and Simon Starling put up two half-hour-long documentaries (with a couple of extraordinary Japanese masks) at Casey Kaplan. Best of all was triathlete Guido van der Werve’s Nummer veertien, home at Luhring Augustine, where more viewing chairs may be needed before the show’s closing. It’s nearly as addictive as Christian Marclay’s The Clock.
Across the street at Gagosian, Douglas Gordon was still installing his two-hour film, The End of Civilisation, two days in advance of its opening. Taking a cigarette break outside, he noted the nearby shows by his fellow Glaswegians, and suggested that maybe it was time to rename the street Turner Prize Alley, though I may have misheard when he was nearly drowned out by the music coming from next door at Family Business. That’s where artist Kris Perry and six musician friends were drawing a crowd with a hypnotic, postindustrial improvisation on his steel sculptures. (To be fair, I am the curator of this show, which was also on my beat as a reporter. Sometimes we writers have to double up.)
There were two other major exceptions to the vanguard for film. The ever-inventive Richard Tuttle advanced delicately balanced, horizontal object “systems” on the floor at Pace on West Twenty-Fifth Street, while on Twenty-Second Street, Matthew Marks celebrated the centennial of Tony Smith’s birth with their polar opposite—the magnificent Source, a twelve-thousand-pound sculpture of black steel from 1967, never shown before in New York. It’s gorgeous.
Elsewhere on the block, Mark Flood capped his years-in-the-making, lacy painting project with a deliberately obnoxious (but charming) show celebrating his “lack of development” at Zach Feuer, while Leonardo Drew nearly burned down the house with a charred-wood installation at Sikkema Jenkins. Friedrich Petzel flew the flag for literature at his gallery, temporarily renamed “The Feverish Library,” a group exhibition of book-related art—some of it quite poetic—organized with the help of Higgs. With it, each of the gallery’s thirty artists chose his or her favorite book. It was hard to tell if it was the actual books they prized or just their covers. Either way, the show made a tantalizing recommended-reading room.
On Friday it was back to West Twenty-First Street for Paul Pfeiffer’s debut with the Paula Cooper Gallery, his first solo show in New York in five years. Its centerpiece is an adventure in geometric sculpture—a next-level minirealization of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain’s mansion “playroom,” complete with infinity mirrors and fur-covered waterbed—that Pfeiffer brought to three dimensions from a 1971 magazine photo.
Across the way, 303 Gallery was rocking to the sound of Karen Kilimnik’s noise band of a glitter-and-blood installation with Kim Gordon, the former Sonic Youth bass guitarist whose performative work as an artist takes from—and goes well beyond—her musical career. At the opening, she looked svelte in a black cocktail dress, while Kilimnik showed up wearing noise-canceling headphones and a T-shirt supporting the eradication of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from the food industry, her current obsession.
Before going on to dinner at the Jane Hotel, I stopped by the Kitchen, where dealer David Kordansky was explaining Elad Lassry’s distinctive photos and architecture to collectors Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg. “It’s image as object and object as image,” Kordansky said, as Kitchen director Tim Griffin walked over to promote Lassry’s upcoming performance with the professional ballet dancers who appear in some of the artist’s pictures. Frankly, I’ve rarely seen the Kitchen’s exhibition space look better.
Left: Artist Mary Heilmann. Right: Dealer Katy Erdman and Kim Gordon.
“I hear the New Museum is going to do a show about 1993,” Lisa Spellman whispered at the Kilimnik/Gordon dinner. Just then, Rirkrit Tiravanija walked in with Elizabeth Peyton, only to find Doug Aitken already there talking to Kilimnik. “We’re having a ’90s reunion right now,” he observed. Later, a group of diehards kept to the theme by heading to the rooftop VIP terrace to catch a smoke in the humid evening air.
By Saturday, except for Adam Cvijanovic’s opening at Postmasters, where he was showing large, deconstructed paintings of paintings (actually dioramas at the Museum of Natural History), Douglas Gordon had Chelsea mostly to himself. “I don’t like going to openings in the dark,” said Sheena Wagstaff, and indeed it wasn’t easy to make out the Metropolitan Museum’s modern and contemporary art department chair amid Gordon’s three projection screens on the floor, the only source of light in the show.
If Gordon was celebrating both the beginning and end of civilization, the Bernadette Corporation (Bernadette Van-Huy, John Kelsey, and Antek Walczak) chose Artists Space to limn “2000 Wasted Years,” a mordant retrospective of the group’s work from 1995 to 2011 in fashion, poetry, marketing, and display. Given its proper context here, the entire enterprise made perfect sense, perhaps for the very first time.
Though the artists are reputed to be among the coolest on the scene, Kelsey evidently wasn’t hip enough to know how to find the pizza party given in the collective’s honor at Westway, the former “gentleman’s club” on the West Side Highway. By the time he arrived, a crowd packed into the bar so closely it was hard to bend an elbow was ordering a second (or third) round. Fashion Week was still in motion, Obama had accepted his nomination for reelection, and the night belonged to lovers—of art, community, and self. As usual.
SWITZERLAND IS SMALL, petite, pocket-size, economic, the same size as Presidio County in West Texas, however you want to call it, so any season opening invariably involves three or more cities. Thus Zurich’s anticipated early-autumnal kickoffs actually began in Bern, the weekend before, when Emanuel Rossetti and Tobias Madison’s latest curatorial endeavor—the hyperdiscursively titled group show “TCCA NEW THEATER 2012-2013 APN Research あぷん autoslides #1-3 shindisi home videos the deleted scene a fanzine as a museum / a museum as a fanzine cut-out bin / apnegative sci-fi sounds from the alienated kitchen OOO &&& LLL hc r 1” end stop—opened at that city’s kunsthalle.
I approached the institution’s steps with Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer, artist Annette Amberg, and musician Oliver Falk in tow. Director Fabrice Stroun—gallantly greeting the Swiss masses streaming in—started hooting and laughing. “You’re all in blue, I can’t believe it! You look like a fashion shoot. Wait, I’ll take a picture. Did you coordinate this?” We hadn’t, and didn’t get his excitement until we were inside, where blue was one of the themes of the evening. After perusing the aggressively laconic installations, we were lulled by two transfixing concerts—so many blues—by Stefan Tcherepnin and a group of Frankfurt musicians who sprawled on the floor, playing their instruments as close to the ground as possible. After a thunderstorm chimed in, vans swept us en masse to the museum dinner, where, under tents set up alongside the now-roaring Aare River, everyone described their summer holidays (Nice, Stromboli, Elba, etc.) and caroused until the nascent last trains to Basel, Zurich, and Geneva had friends frantically calling (and stealing) cabs to the station.
The following week the Zurich season openings began in earnest. Thursday night I found myself at the Diagonal Building for a private preview of Peter Kilchmann’s three-person show—Armin Boehm, Fabian Marti, Erika Verzutti—oddly tied together by the flashy Jean Genet quote (and the show’s title) “I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and enamored of danger.” But Marti’s superb showing of psychedelic ceramics, as well as the boxerlike beauty of Genet’s portrait on the invitation card, made it work. Soon enough we headed to Kilchmann’s nearby apartment for dinner, where artists from far (Teresa Margolles) and near (Pamela Rosenkranz) were assembling.
“The last time I was here, that building wasn’t even on the skyline,” Amberg noted as we stood on Kilchmann’s balcony surveying the glassy green Prime Tower (small but sweet, it’s the tallest building in Switzerland) in silhouette against the West Zurich night. Migros Museum director Heike Munder told us that since the Migros’s opening with Ragnar Kjartansson was delayed—Löwenbräu problems— they’d be serving a special cocktail as a palliative the next night during the parade of new exhibitions that would open the refurbished brewery.
“The Löwenbräu Complex—Switzerland’s most important international location for contemporary art—has been saved,” a recent article trumpeted, perhaps ironically. Indeed, most of the talk from resigned dealers and harried curators was of the spaces inside, like Migros, that were unfinished—except for LUMA Foundation and Kunsthalle Zurich, which were able to hand over the necessary funds for faster construction. Before descending into that rift, though, we had quick stops to make. At BolteLang I said hello to artist Valentin Carron and Liste’s Jacqueline Uhlmann and apologized to Anna Bolte for not making it to the Fai Baba music video shoot in the space earlier that week, filmed amid the antic installations of Claudia Comte, Athene Galiciadis, and Mélodie Mousset’s candy-colored show.
Then we rushed down Limmatstrasse to Karma International, where Martin Soto Climent’s performance had just begun: Dressed in Day-Glo yellow, he slowly turned a weaving wheel hooked to a web of stockings as a lovely girl operatically sang lines about the wheel of life. At RaebervonStenglin I had a beer in the pastoral parking lot outside the gallery and its new showroom with artists Kilian Rüthemann, Saâdane Afif, and Berlin-via-Zurich duo Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, the last of whom were remarkably relaxed, probably due to their excellent exhibition inside.
No such relaxation followed as we made our way up the steps of the Löwenbräu, which was bursting at its stolid, white cube–ridden seams. As promised, the Migros Museum’s doors were shut. In front of them, an impromptu bar served drinks topped with tropical umbrellas. Munder materialized and I found myself with a pocketful of small, orange drink tickets. Nice. We pushed upstairs through the throngs to survey the new Kunsthalle Zurich and its packed show of new work by Wolfgang Tillmans, a quasi bookend to his exhibition there in 1995. The huge, matte images clamped to the walls followed one after the other, without end. It was like flipping through a photobook: frame, frame, frame. “It’s just so sexy!” one excitable lady yelled to her friends, gesturing at a close-up image of pipes. Her friends looked at her alarmed—or maybe that was me. Art Basel’s Marc Spiegler trucked on past with some collectors in hand.
Also on hand were Swiss debuts: At the Kunsthalle was Helen Marten’s sprawling, elliptical “Almost the exact shape of Florida.” At Hauser & Wirth was Thomas Houseago’s show aptly called “The mess I’m looking for.” In another corner was Freymond-Guth Fine Arts’s Dani Gal solo. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” While Gal’s film-and-image admixture was wonderful per usual, at this point I felt like, taken together, the various exhibition titles were trying to tell me something—but what?
But art missives weren’t the subject that night anyway; the new space in which they were being written was. And that was an even more obscure letter to parse. Cue the comment of the evening: that the building’s repeated formula of big white rooms with concrete floors and fluorescent lights felt like Chelsea’s early corporation in New York, ten years ago.
I headed downstairs to the packed mezzanine, swirling with people and bars and grills. I sat with Francesca Pia for a sausage—her space wasn’t done either, and would be opening later in the month, she told me between bites. Just then I got a text from Museum fur Gegenwartskunst curator Scott Cameron Weaver: “We’re upstairs at the private sausage party; come!” Upstairs, I ran into Basel Kunstverein president Peter Handschin—“Don’t forsake Basel for Zurich!” he warned me, laughing—and finally found Weaver and Tillmans and dealer Daniel Buchholz, all smiling, joyfully, wanly, at the crowd. Then it was to another private sausage fest: the Tillmans afterparty at the ever-bucolic Longstreet. The tiny space upstairs was packed with dancing bodies: I joined artists Stefan Burger and Raphael Hefti—in a dashing Usain Bolt T-shirt—near the stripper pole and at some late hour (I think) Beatrix Ruf came barreling through the crowd, dishing out bear hugs.
The next afternoon I joined the slightly hungover Swiss art world on the train to Aarau, where the Aargauer Kunsthaus had mounted a generous survey of youngish Swiss artists (Shirana Shahbazi, Marta Riniker Radich, Adrien Missika, Ana Roldán, Vanessas Billy and Safavi) from across the federation, most of whom I had danced with in Zurich the previous night. Performances began immediately: Nino Baumgartner flew up and down the circular staircase, a bag of sand in hand and a video camera attached to his pith helmet. Alexandra Bachzetsis performed her study in duality, A Piece Danced Alone, with dancer Anna Pajunen. Like a human chandelier, Anne Rochat hung from the ceiling in a skirt of wineglasses; as her legs swirled, glasses began trembling, chiming, slashing (her), and smashing to the floor near some seemingly bemused Josephsohn sculptures.
I soon set off to the roof for the grill with Kunsthalle Basel director Adam Szymczyk. Everyone tucked into their sausages (what else?) and no one felt like breaking glasses. Suddenly everything was the color of a Georg Trakl poem: gray rain, brown wine. It was raining, the faces were familiar, and the season—like so many others—had begun.
The Arirang Mass Games. (All photos: Travis Jeppesen)
IT SEEMS THAT EVERYONE who goes there comes back feeling that they have had the definitive experience, having attained the truest and most accurate understanding of that most mysterious of countries—or at least this is how so many of the accounts read. And yet I, returning now from my second trip, feel less certain, more perplexed than ever before. Which only makes me want to go back again.
Most people are surprised to learn that someone holding a US passport can legally visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it is officially known, or North Korea, as we are wont to refer to it in the West, but the Hermit Kingdom has been welcoming American tourists—along with anyone else (with the exception of South Koreans and journalists)—since 2010 under the auspices of the state-owned Korea International Travel Company. Three Air Koryo flights a week shuttle planeloads of mainly Western tourists and high-ranking Korean businessmen and government officials between Pyongyang and Beijing, one of the only (legal) portals to the outside world. Tours must be arranged by an outside travel company, the best of which is Koryo Tours, which also runs a Beijing gallery of DPRK art and has produced a range of topical documentaries on the country.
“It’s best to view the DPRK as a Confucian red state,” says my Koryo guide, Christopher Graper, a sprightly thirtysomething Canadian with a clear passion for this country that is viewed by so many as a frightening abomination on the world map. He goes on to explain to our group the standard procedure of tourism in the DPRK: All groups are accompanied by two Korean guides and a driver; you are not allowed to wander away from the group at any point during your stay in the country; you are forbidden to go anywhere unaccompanied by a local guide; please don’t bring in any religious pamphlets; nothing with a US or South Korean flag; no CDs, DVDs, or publications from South Korea; no cell phones, no GPS devices, nothing that requires a SIM card to function. Photography and filming are permitted—with the exception of anything and anyone military—not the easiest thing to avoid in a country where every other person you see is in uniform; when in doubt, ask your Korean guides; any statues or paintings of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il must be captured from head to toe—no close-ups on the faces or any other anatomical parts; in the case of printed matter (newspapers and magazines), you cannot bend, tear, throw out, or otherwise destroy anything bearing the photographic likeness of either of the Kims; don’t photograph images of poverty or anything else that might cause embarrassment to the Koreans or spread a negative image of the country abroad; when in doubt, ask your guides.
None of this is news to me. Foreboding as it may sound, I quite enjoyed the company of my Korean guides on my last trek through the country. Anyway, this time around, I’m on a much shorter trip: just off to the capital to take in the Arirang Mass Games. Named after a beloved Korean folk song (which you’ll hear a couple times a day, at least, on any visit to the country), this gargantuan propaganda extravaganza, the Guinness-certified largest performance spectacle in the world, has been held annually since 2002 in Pyongyang’s Rungrado May Day Stadium. Featuring more than 100,000 performers—among them acrobats, athletes, singers, dancers, banner- and flag-wielding marshals—the Arirang Mass Games enacts the revolutionary history of the country in ninety minutes on über-monumental scale, the likes of which simply can’t be seen anywhere else. Or, to be precise, would be impossible to produce elsewhere. (As I heard one overexcited tourist exclaim, “This could never happen in a capitalist country. We’re just not organized enough!”) Inaugurated in 2002 and occurring annually in the autumn months, this year’s edition, which falls upon the centenary of the birth of the country’s Eternal President, Kim Il Sung, will allegedly be the last, with a wholly new performance being planned for next year, details of which have yet to be revealed.
As our flight from Beijing was a bit late, we were transported directly from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport to the Rungrado Stadium, the largest of its kind (by capacity) in the world. The first thing you notice about the DPRK is that people are rarely to be found walking alone on the streets; it must be the most highly organized society in the world, and even seemingly casual scenes, such as that outside of Rungrado prior to the show, reflected this. Several regiments of soldiers stood in line, waiting for their orders to march into the stadium and take their seats. Besides soldiers, the second most ubiquitous group is probably the pioneer-scarved members of the Children’s Union, who are more amenable to smiling and waving at the foreign tourists—that is, us—sequestered at the rear of the parking lot as our guides counted heads and issued tickets. Then, there’s the odd family unit that will make its way steadfastly past. Finally, there is the spectacle of the costumed performers themselves marching orderly toward the rear of the stadium.
The enormity of what we were about to witness became evident the moment we entered the stadium to take our seats, with thousands of blue-flag-bearing marshals lined up on the stadium floor, behind which stood another several thousand young girls in gymnast uniforms; still (and at this point you’re wishing you had a few more sets of eyes in your head to take it all in), the some 20,000 children facing you, flipping color cards in perfect synchronicity to form the shifting backdrops. A coordinating start cue is somehow given, the children shout out, “Hey!,” the marshals on the ground move forward, then back, and thousands of young female dancers in traditional dress come surging forth as the lights dim and the festive symphonic music swells—as does your adrenaline.
The narrative begins in 1905, a relatively idyllic time for Koreans, only to be soured five years later when Korea came under occupation by Japan. The Japanese were, by all accounts, ruthless colonialists, banning the Korean language and doing their utmost to abolish all traces of the indigenous culture, while enslaving the locals. It was, according to the official history, only the birth of Kim Il Sung—an event observed in the Arirang as a sunrise—in 1912 that would enable Koreans to rise up against their oppressors and found their own nation-state.
Two pistols, which were inherited by the country’s Eternal President Kim Il Sung upon his father’s death in 1926, also appear “in the cards”; they had allegedly been used by the family patriarch in the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, the success of which would see the formation of a sovereign Korean state that would soon come to be divided by foreign powers. Kim Jong Il would inherit the same two pistols, as, presumably, would current leader Kim Jong Un, thus symbolically legitimizing the filial succession unique among communist countries.
And then, there are the kids. At one point, thousands of children come running across the field, landing in perfect lines and embarking upon a routine of synchronized dance, much to the delight of the squealing audience. “Children,” Kim Il Sung reputedly once said, “are the kings of our nation.” But look at them out there, smiling and moving and just, well . . . perfect. How do they do it? The answer is quite simple: In the DPRK, children aren’t raised by their parents. They’re raised by the state.
Of course, most of the tourists there to witness the Arirang will understand little of the symbolism, and that’s fine also. What’s unmissable is the dynamic symbiosis that emerges in the energy field formed between the performers and audience: The real intended audience, of course, is the Korean people—who simultaneously serve as the performers. In the course of the ritual, any division between “us” and “them,” participant and audience member, is dissolved in the experiential spectacle of mass being.
Besides the Mass Games, the most intriguing part of any trip to North Korea is getting to know and befriend your guides (whose kindness, optimism, and generosity of spirit effectively dissipate any notions of cruelty one might associate with the place), relishing the few interactions with locals that are permitted, and trying to gauge how average Koreans live while visiting the many compulsory propaganda sites. “We’re going to establish diplomatic ties with the United States in the near future to provide for the security of our nation,” one of my Korean guides insisted at one point, a tremor of hope in his voice. Two days after I left, American and South Korean soldiers were preparing for their annual military exercises on the border, and the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency condemned “the US imperialist aggressors and the south Korean warmongers,” threatening in retaliation “to deal deadly blows at the enemies in hearty response to the order given by Kim Jong Un and leave the US imperialist aggressors and sycophantic traitors no place to live on earth.” Between these two extremities, a dream and a nightmare, lies the truth; probably everyone on my tour would disagree on exactly where that would be. Visiting North Korea instills within you the occasionally painful awareness that nowhere is reality straightforward and pragmatic, however we may wish for it to seem; rather it’s something that must be pieced together from the mishmash of fabrics stitched with conflicting messages.
North Korea is a place where ideology and performance are one and the same—and Koreans here appear as born performers. Spectacle though it may be, the Arirang nevertheless serves as a stunning display of the DPRK’s greatest natural resources. Or at least 100,000 of them.
THE NAME OF THE FOUNDING KING OF LITHUANIA, “Mindaugas” is a relatively common appellation in the Baltic country, loosely translating to “many ideas.” It is also the name of the character who serves, quite literally, as the human conduit for the Eleventh Baltic Triennial, which kicked off its twelve-day run on Thursday, August 24, at Vilnius’s Contemporary Art Center.
Eschewing the traditional format, curators Defne Ayas and Benjamin Cook chose to focus on performance and film, recruiting artists Michael Portnoy and Ieva Misevičiūte to plot a creative framework that would work to the advantage of both artmaking modes. Mindaugas became the “empty vessel” to receive ideas; each day he was activated by a different set of instructions provided by artists including Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Marianne Vitale, and Steve Cosson of the Civilians. Every evening, Mindaugas would complete a private, self-restoring ritual devised by Catherine Sullivan and Farhad Sharmini, and go to sleep. Performances from the likes of Ragnar Kjartansson, Goodiepal, and Ivo Dimchev would then stand in for a speculative glimpse into Mindaugas’s dream life.
Spearheaded by Cook, the film component, “The Cinema of the Self,” explored the limits of sanity and selfhood with offerings from Eric Baudelaire, Neïl Beloufa, and Moyra Davey. As a special commission-in-progress, Mark Aerial Waller would shoot, edit, and screen daily installments of Time Together, whose twelve episodes folded quotidian events of the triennial (from sunspots to curatorial cameos to commentary on a freak power outage) into a larger (but equally unpredictable) narrative. By the time I left, the cast included a creepy, candy-drugging stranger (Lithuanian soap diva Monika Bičiūnaitė), and an unsuspecting ingenue played by Smiltė Bagdžiūnė, a model who also moonlights as an artisanal lollipop entrepreneur.
On opening night, CAC director Kęstutis Kuizinas and Lithuania’s affable minister of culture each said a few words, before the crowd was funneled into the “Charismateria” for Portnoy’s SRO 100 Big Entrances. The performance’s premise is straightforward enough: The artist reads aloud a list of ways to make an entrance, and the performer does his best to comply. The directives were at once lucid and convoluted, as only Portnoy could pull off. (Example: “Enter with a mixture of ferociousness, para-ferociousness, and para-volitional ferromagnetism.”) Mindaugas—whose IMDB credits include the role of “Jewish Father Being Beaten #1” in a Daniel Craig movie—further proved his acting prowess by demonstrating the subtleties between entering “like oil,” “like virgin olive oil,” and “like extra virgin olive oil.” Meanwhile, his dark tousled hair and snug white T-shirt had his audience weighing the implications of secretly wanting to go home with the triennial—a scenario that seemed suddenly, tantalizingly possible when Portnoy commanded Mindaugas to find someone in the crowd he could fall in love with, sending lights up on a hopeful house.
That night, CAC celebrated with beer and chicken wings in the backyard. Technically, Mindaugas was supposed to be “dreaming” all evening, so I was surprised to spot his dark-hoodied figure alone by the hedges, sipping at a beer. Ayas had warned me that Mindaugas would evade any line of questioning, but I couldn’t help but feel for the “empty vessel.”
I tried to rally my girl posse: “Maybe we should try and talk to the triennial?” “Go ahead,” one connoisseur scoffed. “The thing is, onstage he may be all sorts of hotness, but at lunch today, he just sat at the end of the table like a piece of furniture.” “A total A4,” a dealer quickly confirmed. “I’d still totally put that in my printer,” the first friend shot back, prompting an array of increasingly inappropriate office analogies.
The challenge of offering oneself up as an object would become even more evident over the next few days. Friday morning’s “activation”—Tim Etchells’s Ways Forward—enlisted Mindaugas to tag city walls with provocations like PEOPLE SHOULD STRIVE TO DEVELOP / THEIR CHILDREN’S CAPACITY FOR FEAR. Etchells and I watched as the very first passerby stopped to chastise Mindaugas, who had just finished scrawling PEOPLE SHOULD ASK THEMSELVES / HOW FAR THEY ARE WILLING TO GO. “Was she upset?” the artist asked eagerly. Mindaugas shrugged: “Not really. She was more concerned about who was going to paint over it and what color paint they would use.”
Early the next morning, the few and the proud gathered to greet the dawn in the Jeruzalė Sculpture Garden, around the studio of beloved sculptor Vladas Vildžiūnas. A stronghold for former dissident artists, the park contains many prime examples of work from the likes of Vildžiūnas and Mindaugas Navakas. Both were present that morning for Çavuşoğlu’s contribution to the triennial, Incubatio. Borrowing the conceit of “dream-hunting” from Serbian writer Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of Khazars, Çavuşoğlu intended to consult Mindaugas’s dreams to find out more about the vanished medieval polity, who some believe to be the ancestors of modern-day Lithuanians. Invoking the ritual sleep of the “Istikhara,” Çavuşoğlu built Mindaugas a hammock so he could rest amid the sculptures and even called in a local anthropologist to assist in rooting out potential clues.
It’s one thing to harness a man’s dreams in a curatorial statement, and quite another to do so in real life. As it happened, Mindaugas slept poorly and dreamed of penguins. He tried his best to go along with the premise, relating what he could to the Khazars, but eventually the “empty vessel” act snapped and the actor took over, playing to the crowd with charming anecdotes about a near-death experience in childhood that involved an artificial lake, a one-armed fifteen-year-old, and a lethally unattractive pair of swim trunks. For her part, the anthropologist delivered a rambling testimony on how, without transgression, life is meaningless and something about a Jewish child not being able to eat grapes—all very revelatory, I’m sure, but a little incomprehensible to a decaffeinated crowd. Then again, to quote Pavić: “You cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it.”
Left: Artist Alex Cecchetti. Right: Ivo Dimchev.
If things seemed at risk of unraveling earlier, Ivo Dimchev yanked at every possible loose thread with Som Faves, his mesmerizing, manic, one-man show. Described in the program as “the Klaus Kinski of contemporary performance,” Dimchev delivered something part cabaret, part exorcism. He took to the stage looking like Nosferatu in a Meg Ryan wig (which he briefly swapped for a Dirrty-era Christina Aguilera do) and dressed like the manager of a showboat. Dimchev’s voice bounces from boy-band crooning to schizophrenic caterwauling to tender, trembling high notes to rival Antony’s, and he pushed all these sonic incongruities to potent effect. “There’s something a little baroque about those trills, am I right?” Portnoy mused.
Dimchev prefaced his act with the acknowledgment that performance was “a waste of human resources,” consuming time, electricity, and money. “If this does not make us feel good, at least it will makes us feel less lonely,” he concluded. “Thank you for coming and enjoy the waste.”
The entire experience hovered somewhere between watching a junkie coming off a four-day bender and eavesdropping on your weird cousin playing alone in a room. At one point, Dimchev played Wagner while perching a porcelain cat on his lap. When the music abruptly cut off, the artist faced his audience: “Yes, I tried to incorporate Wagner into this performance. But I don’t think it worked.” Later, on his knees before the cat, he pled with it to tell him what it wanted, hurling excruciating (and surprisingly poignant) declarations of love—“If you tell me what kind of food you want to eat, I will get it for you!! Any kind, I’ll get it for you because that is how much I love you!! Just tell me what it is you want!!”—at its cold, ceramic face.
Dimchev declared that he found it freeing that virtually anything could be called “choreography,” but that this made it easier to get lost. Grappling for some sort of orientation, I recalled a line of controversial psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s in Luke Fowler’s All Divided Selves, part of the “Cinema of the Self” program: “We are acting parts in a play that we’ve never read, have never seen, whose plot we don’t know, and whose end I do not dare to presume to imagine.” Dream on, Mindaugas.
Left: Artist Darius Mikšys. Right: Artist Ieva Misevičiūte.