OLAFUR ELIASSON has been thinking about steel. “The people who work with steel refer to it as something fluid,” he said. “No one ever referred to steel as something static.” We were in Dnepropetrovsk, an industrial city of a million people in southeastern Ukraine, for the opening ceremony of the Interpipe Steel Mill. Eliasson had contributed five permanent installations to the factory—from a tunnel of elliptical steel arcs at the entrance to a sixty-meter-tall artificial sun—at the behest of Viktor Pinchuk, the founder of Interpipe. The collaboration followed Eliasson’s solo show at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev in spring 2011. His task was to aesthetically articulate the values of the steel mill, to define its purpose for the employees. I tried to think of analogous situations where a visionary figure was enlisted to transform an industrial site and only came up with Zaha Hadid’s BMW plant in Leipzig. “Hadid communicated BMW to the outside,” Eliasson said. “Here it’s more about what’s going on inside.”
Interpipe Steel’s art can’t vie with its economic impact for significance. There were relatively few people with art-world connections there for the opening—the Pinchuk Art Centre’s staff, we writers who had been flown in at the Centre’s expense, Eliasson’s studio employees—among hundreds of businessmen and functionaries, including former presidents of Poland and Ukraine and ambassadors to Ukraine from the United States, Britain, and France. As we waited in the hangarlike temporary pavilion for current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to arrive, animated text spun on the screens to announce Interpipe’s achievements: a $700 million investment, the first new factory built from scratch in Ukraine since it became an independent country in 1991, a creator of seven hundred new jobs.
“The future is made of steel,” Yanukovich announced in his brief address. Pinchuk thanked his mother for advising him to major in pipe rolling at the Dnepropetrovsk Metallurgical Institute, and mentioned that his first job had been at the defunct steel mill on the lot next to Interpipe. “Steel is a friend to us,” said Gianpietro Benedetti of Danieli, the Italian engineering company that designed the mill. “The house, the train, the building—everything is in steel.” The speeches were followed by a surprise performance by the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, whose attendance impressed me more than Yanukovich’s did. They played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Denis Matsuev, and Ravel’s Bolero, which Pinchuk introduced with an anecdote from the composer’s letters: Ravel had been inspired to write it by the sight of factory smokestacks. The concert ended with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, featuring the Mariinsky’s operatic choir. “I’m going to demand a choir for every project now,” Eliasson joked later.
Left: Pinchuk Art Center artistic manager Björn Geldof and Olafur Eliasson studio manager Caroline Egel. Right: Pinchuk Art Centre director Eckhard Schneider and Interpipe Steel Mill deputy director Vladimir Yerak.
My British colleagues in the press pool were eager to see the welding of culture to industry as a throwback to Soviet times, when new factories were consecrated with monumental murals. To me, contemporary art’s involvement in the economic renewal of eastern Ukraine signaled the inexorable expansion of neoliberalism. But as Matsuev hammered out Tchaikovsky’s ponderous chords I realized that Interpipe offered an ideological cocktail, a blend of two diluted tinctures of modernist utopia.
We’ve all seen contemporary art installed in abandoned and repurposed factories; it was novel to see it gracing a newly operational one. Pinchuk spoke of art as “one of the tools of modernization and acceleration.” In Ukraine, at least, it shares the toolbox with manufacturing. The way Eliasson talked about steel—a fluid energy in constant motion—implicitly rebranded a cornerstone of Soviet heavy industry with the liquidity valued in information-age economies.
His vision of steel was compelling but it strained belief inside the plant, where the oppressive heat, the noise, the smoke, and the sluggish movements of gigantic machines made steel seem solid after all. Though Eliasson said he’d been given total artistic freedom—he even demanded it as a condition of his involvement—I thought the scale and the quotidian needs of factory life overpowered the elfin lightness that I’ve come to associate with his work. Your time tunnel, the portal of elliptical arcs at the plant’s entrance, comes to an abrupt stop at the metal grate of the security checkpoint. Inside, a tall wall was filled by Material is movement, a tower of mirrors that suggested falling drops of mercury. Light caught in the rectilinear lines of the panes that composed the round wholes, interrupting their fluid continuity.
Left: Victor Pinchuk with conductor Valery Gergiev. Right: Workers at the Interpipe Steel Mill.
After dusk, the remaining guests returned to the pavilion for a viewing of Dnepropetrovsk sunrise, the artificial sun. We were treated to drinks and a thematic playlist: “Tequila Sunrise” by the Eagles, “Here Comes the Sun,” by the Beatles, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. “What would people think? Do we belong to a cult? We’re meeting at 7 PM to see a sunrise,” Pinchuk said. “It’s only possible with contemporary art and great artists like Olafur Eliasson.” A choir of boys and girls, dressed in approximations of Soviet school uniforms, appeared on stage to sing “May There Always Be Sunshine,” a popular children’s song from the 1960s. As they finished, the curtains on the pavilion’s east wall parted to reveal the sun.
Dnepropetrovsk sunrise is somewhat larger than the sun that Eliasson placed outside a factory in Utrecht in 1999, and it has not one face but two. One elliptical disc faced the factory; the other faced downtown Dnepropetrovsk across the river. Our gaze from the pavilion was bluntly greeted by the band of corrugated steel that joined them. The work isn’t supposed to be an illusion, Eliasson said—but the magnificence of the real sun is in the impossibility of seeing the source of its radiance. A buffet reception was held at a restaurant on the hillside on the opposite bank of the Dniepr, with a remote view. Toward the party’s end I went down to the riverfront promenade. A handful of locals were out for an evening stroll. They stopped, pointed, and marveled at the glowing body that was bigger than a streetlamp, lower than the moon.
CLEVELAND IS A SLEEPY gray city that curls around the edge of Lake Eerie and is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; three sports stadiums; one very popular casino; a sprawling world-class medical center; a car insurance company; an art museum with a glass atrium the size of a football field (“I feel like I’m in an airport—but in a good way,” said a friend as we glided down the escalator); one greeting card company; countless charming clapboard-and-brick homes that retail at less than $100,000; a large city park divided into ethnic zones (“Can you imagine if they did this in Central Park?” asked a New York dealer. “There would be an ethnic war,” said another); the nation’s most-frequented Starbucks; and, as of earlier this month, the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art, a 34,000-square-foot hexagonal building that reaches sixty-five feet into the air and is lined with over thirteen hundred black steel panels that send the city’s reflection shimmering over its surface.
“It’s a fat building. And I like its fatness,” said Agnes Gund, sitting amid an audience of collectors, dealers, philanthropists, journalists, and artists the morning after the museum hosted its VIP opening reception. (“Black Tie—have fun with it!” the invitation announced.) There was laughter. The building’s architect, Farshid Moussavi, a fiercely self-possessed woman, dazzled Clevelanders and New Yorkers alike with her fashion choices throughout the weekend—Friday night: a dress made of combs (“It’s Maison Margiela. I almost bought the same one,” said Carol Greene. “But Bergdorf ran out.”); Saturday: a pink foam tunic that vaguely resembled the top of a cupcake (“Comme des Garçons,” said Angela Robins of Honor Fraser). At Gund’s comment, Moussavi made a small smile that could be read alternately as amused or piqued.
Left: Collector Toby Devan Lewis. Right: Greene Naftali's Jeffrey Rowledge with artists Jacqueline Humphries and Teresita Fernandez.
Gund is one of the museum’s most significant backers, having gifted $1 million in 2006 following a 2005 donation of $2.1 million by the George Gund Foundation, which was established by her father. These funds gave director Jill Snyder the means and confidence to hire Moussavi and begin the process of building a new home for a museum that previously occupied the second floor of an abandoned Sears department store and, prior to that, a former fraternity house. As a Cleveland native, Gund possesses a certain parental sense of propriety over the city—on the flight from New York en route to the opening, rumor has it that she marched up and down the aisle of the plane handing out Obama/Biden buttons.
“I’ve seen a lot of these buildings and so often they’re narrow, people smashed up against the wall,” Gund continued. “The design makes for an experience that goes beyond art.”
“I like to think of it as engagement,” said Moussavi. “Every floor is designed so the public and the art spaces invade each other.” For the inaugural exhibition, “Inside Out and from the Ground Up,” chief curator David Norr selected sixteen artists whose work negotiates boundaries between spaces that often oppose the other—for example, artificial and natural environments, light and dark, physical and metaphysical worlds. Haegue Yang, Jacqueline Humphries, Henrique Oliveira, Walead Beshty, Oliver Husain, and David Altmejd were among those with works in the exhibition that attended the opening—each presenting pieces that explore the liminal space that opens when conflicting forces collide.
Over the weekend, Cleveland-based collectors opened their homes for the slew of out-of-town visitors that descended upon the city to celebrate the big launch. Collector Scott Mueller passed out flutes of champagne to buses unloading dealers including Laurel Gitlen, Gary Snyder, James Cohan, and Janine Cirincione. (“The champagne’s flowing, so drink up!” he said merrily.) There was a visit through the collection at the Progressive Insurance campus, which has been amassed over the past several decades with an eye toward social disruption. “If a work doesn’t hum on the wall, if it doesn’t arouse conversation, then it’s not a good fit for Progressive,” said cofounder and former curator Toby Devon Lewis. We followed with curator Joanne Cohen’s tour of the Cleveland Clinic, where we wandered past operating rooms and works by Sarah Morris, Jaume Plensa, and Catherine Opie. “We had to install benches near some of our most popular pieces because people kept moving chairs out of waiting rooms so they could sit in front of the art,” Cohen told us. “Art is very restorative after the end of a long day or an open heart surgery.”
“Restorative” can be thematized more broadly, too: As several trustees share, fifteen years ago Cleveland was in a severe slump and could have easily followed the tracks of Detroit. “Just to give you a sense of the drama around our fund-raising for the museum,” said Snyder, “the day the board met to decide whether or not it would commit to the new building, the primary bank in Cleveland was taken over by the government. It was October of 2008. The board could have said, ‘Scrap the design and build a shed. Do something simple that we can afford.’ And they didn’t.”
The board did state that they refused to break ground until all the necessary funds were raised. The museum, which clocked in at $27.2 million, is entirely debt free. On Saturday night, MoCA Cleveland hosted a party for its public opening. The event sold out completely. In the bathroom, I was struck by a very short conversation. Two women stood in front of the mirror applying lipstick. “I don’t get half of the art here, but I’m excited for what this museum means for Cleveland and for our kids, and their kids’ kids,” said one.
“Anyone can build a sports stadium,” the other responded. “But it takes a real force to build an arts center.”
EVEN IN AUTUMN, Paris plays like a summer pop song: slick, dirty, a little cheesy—but you just can’t help singing along. Last week at FIAC, people were feeling young, even in the midst of October’s punishing back-to-back fair schedule. Following Frieze, the French fair felt like a breath of fresh air. Dealers everywhere were beaming (or at least attempting to), reporting actual sales and not just the “record figures” promised in postfair press releases.
FIAC week unofficially launched in the suburbs of Paris, with a high-profile Anselm Kiefer showdown in two new spaces: one (Thaddaeus Ropac) in a former boiler factory, the other (Gagosian) decadently lodged in a private airport. (“Duty free,” the dealer cracked, shamelessly quotable.) I chose to forgo both of these heavyweight events, kicking off my week in the very center of the city, with a Monday evening pleasure cruise along the Seine. “This feels like prom!” writer Zoe Stillpass yelped, stepping down into the mahogany-paneled hull of our handsome riverboat. A quick glance around the well-heeled room—adviser Patricia Marshall; collectors Shelley Fox and Phil Aarons, Alain Servais, and Josef Dalle Nogare; a smattering of artists and dealers who could get away from the fair install—confirmed that I had underestimated the dress code. Island party or not, this was still Paris.
The boat was taking us to Ile Seguin, the site of the old Renault plant, now pending rebirth as “R4,” an all-purpose cultural hub designed by Jean Nouvel. At present, the island is host to little more than a tent circus and R4’s temporary public arts program, which has commissioned seventeen artists (Spartacus Chetwynd, Ida Ekblad, Jonathan Horowitz, and Rob Pruitt among them) to contribute to “an original and unprecedented Art Walk.” An astute choice of adjectives.
We docked right under the bridge to the island, where the giant Renault sign still looms over the circus tents. Rather than walk this bridge, we were methodically marched, single file, up a series of platforms leading to the parking zone, where we were loaded onto buses. (“Next it’s the train,” artist Nick Mauss groaned.) Our forty-second transit across the bridge culminated in a muddy lot riddled with murky puddles that may or may not have been spouting from the Oscar Tuazon. The rest of the work was parked at odd intervals around an aggressively angular path. The map’s lazy description of most work as “mixed media” only complicated the hide-and-seek aspect. “I still don’t understand what part of what I’m looking at is the Virginia Overton,” a curator grumbled, surveying an overgrown lot. Still, Nicolas Party’s fruit sculptures played nicely in the grassier areas, while Pruitt’s cosmi-chrome dinosaurs looked perfectly at home on the route toward fresh extinction.
Back on the boat, we were treated to champagne and molecular gastronomy, the très chic experience of taking perfectly acceptable finger food and rendering it inedible (à la dipping salmon cubes in green sauce and dry ice). Thankfully, the on-board Shana Moulton performance proved more palatable. Once we reached the mainland, we dashed to the Palais de Tokyo for the public openings of its next installment of “Imagine the Imaginary,” which shuffled solo projects by Neïl Beloufa and Helen Marten into a preexisting mix of exhibitions that included Ryan Gander’s crowd-pleasing carousel of objects and a retrospective of the fashion brand Chloé. Upstairs, an “Immaterial Auction” was in full swing, with crowds there to bid on intangible experiences schemed up by various artists. For the right price (presumably, any price at all), one could enjoy a Belgian slumber party with Wim Delvoye, go for a midnight ride in Bertrand Lavier’s Ferrari, or indulge in a “heclectic” (?) night on the town with Francesco Vezzoli. I bumped into artist Xavier Veilhan, whose lot—a voyage on his “nautical sculpture” followed by lunch at the studio—was to be the penultimate. “Are you nervous?” I prodded. “Honestly?” he responded. “I feel a bit like a prostitute.”
Left: Dealer Alexander Hertling with Schinkel Pavillon's Nina Pohl at Squat #1. Right: Dealer Chiara Repetto and artist Nicolas Party.
We rounded off the evening at Squat #1, a swank apartment in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. A collaboration among Balice Hertling, Nilafur Gallery, and Dimore Studio, the enviable interiors were all impeccably outfitted, mingling furniture with artwork and design objects. “Did you see the Martino Gamper?” collector Iasson Tsakonas raved, as we stood under the Champagne chandelier created by Tuazon and Eli Hansen. Miuccia Prada and Rick Owens vied for champagne flutes by the fireplace, where Vezzoli’s embroidered portrait of his mother echoed Ingres’s blue-taffeta princess and took pride of place on the mantle. I was more enamored with The Hermaphrodite of the Alps, a breathlessly brutal bit of eroticism by Pierre Klossowski matched to a clean white couch.
The next evening, the Musée d’Art Moderne was hosting its annual fund-raiser gala, but I opted to return to the Palais de Tokyo for another look at Marten’s smart Evian Disease, an animated film exploring the implications of contemporary life in “the artificial forest.” I unpacked the imagery (hyperrealistic snails, lettuce leaves, a very disturbing baby) with curators Polly Stapleton and Jamie Stevens at a dinner at the museum’s restaurant hosted by Sadie Coles, T293, and Johann Koenig. After, we joined collector David Simkins, dealer Roberto Moiraghi, and artists Hanna Liden and Klara Liden at a nearby bar. We ordered Jamesons all around, only to have the waiter bring out glasses with little more than a swallow each. “We ran out,” he shrugged. This was, after all, still Paris.
Those awake by the fair’s opening would later breathlessly recount the heady 10 AM rush of collectors who first stormed the upstairs before seeping down into the main fair, where they were greeted by Basquiats and Boettis, Picassos and one very large Paul McCarthy. “Where was this work in London?” one collector cried, in a manner somewhere between exhilaration and exasperation. Capitain Petzel turned heads with its highbrow peep show of body-based works by John Stezaker, Christopher Williams, Christiana Soulou, and recent addition Diango Hernandez. Paris staple Emmanuel Perrotin sported several new artists himself, including ethereal painter Pieter Vermeersch, while upstairs Peres Projects was drawing crowds with the woven work of Brent Wadden, one of the two fresh entries to its roster. Across the aisles, Office Baroque and MFC Michele Dider both boasted the most recent series from Leigh Ledare, whose show at Wiels in Brussels was inspiring day trips among foreign collectors. (“You can take the train and be back by the afternoon,” Shelley Fox Aarons persuaded me. “It’s totally worth it!”)
At Metro Pictures, Robert Longo’s five-meter drawing of an American flag unfurled across one entire wall, while Jonathan Horowitz had his own flags flying a few booths down at with FIAC virgin Gavin Brown. It seems the fair had been gentle with the New York dealer (or perhaps he had just been gentle with it?). I found Brown relaxing on a bench at the front of his stand, flipping through a Create-Your-Own-Rob-Pruitt-Smiley coloring book with another dealer. When I complimented the latter on her place in the Salon d’Honneur—a new section prestigiously placed in a nave overlooking the rest of the fair—she shot back: “What honor? This is just the fair’s way of saying they think you’re too loud and messy.” Intrigued by her description, I ventured upstairs to the Salon, where the dealer’s hypothesis was contradicted by breathtaking booths at the Approach, Jan Mot, and Kaufmann Repetto. When I reached the joint presentation of Elizabeth Dee and Jocelyn Wolff, the dealers were walking Pompidou curator Bernard Blistène around their impressive collaborative effort, which juxtaposed Adrian Piper with Franz Erhard Walther. “Loud” and “messy” were the last words I would have used to describe the scene.
Thursday, another marathon evening kicked off at the Tokyo Art Club, where an intimate crowd including Brown, Beatrix Ruf, and collector Redha Moali were treated to a conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and the inimitable Sturtevant. The conversation roamed from stupidity to Spinoza to (at Brown’s bidding) cybernetics. When asked about one of her alphabet projects, the artist cracked: “I’m just glad I didn’t get ‘A,’ as I would have said ‘All people are assholes’ and that’s no way to start a conversation.” It was no way to end one either, but the evening was only just beginning, with the relaunch of the Cahiers d’Art magazine (edited by Obrist, no less), the Chalet Society/Museum of Everything bash, and a slew of openings in the Marais.
Left: The Third Line's Sunny Rahbar, Art Dubai director Antonia Carver, and The Third Line's Claudia Cellini at FIAC. Right: Dealer Daniel Templon.
Capping off festivities were three separate birthday parties for dealer Sunny Rahbar and artists Alex Israel and Oscar Murillo. The last turned out to be not so much a birthday as a performance of a birthday—complete with a colorful invite, party favors, and an epic round of Bingo—held at the stately home of Cathy and Paolo Vedovi, just across from the president’s mansion on Avenue Gabriel. (“My cab driver was sure I had the address wrong,” dealer Karolina Dankow laughed.) Bortolozzi Gallery had brought in several branches of Murillo’s family tree—all natural-born Colombians living in London—for the occasion. The artist relegated the role of “birthday boy” to Eduardo, a cheerful fellow in a pink shirt and sunglasses, armed with a megaphone explicitly for Bingo purposes (This was a crowd who brought their own cards.) Dancers salsaed around the exquisite furnishings of the living room, dipping each other in front of the Peter Doig, while on the rooftop terrace revelers tucked into tamales, prepared in London by the artist’s aunt, who brought them in a suitcase on the Eurostar. “These are the only tamales to have traveled under the Channel,” dealer Ryan Moore assured me.
At the peak of the party, the birthday-boy MC belted bingo numbers into the microphone. The first “Bingo!” evoked emotions no one could have suspected. “Congratulations!” the MC boomed. “You win . . . this!” gesturing to the magnificent Picasso in the center of the room. The actual gift bags included cheap delights à la lollipops, taffies, “Angel” curling mascara, and “Secret Whispers” intimate wash. It’s a dangerous line Murillo is skating, offering up his home life as a readymade. But as my companion pointed out, Oscar’s family was having a blast, while we were busy worrying about whether it was “OK” to enjoy ourselves. (This, of course, is what champagne is for.)
Chalet Society and Silenzio were still on the agenda, but my next stop was the Toilet Paper bash at Maxim’s. The crowd spilled onto the street outside the iconic club—spilling seemed to be the operative verb that night, but against better judgment we ventured on. That’s one thing about a good pop song: Sometimes they’re infectious to the point of feeling inescapable.
Left: Artist Oscar Murillo (right) with friend at his “birthday party.” Right: Dealer Katy Erdman.
THE UNSPOKEN RULE of social engagements in Beijing dictates that the most important guests on the list are those who are invited but who cannot come, because another, more important engagement keeps them away. At the recent opening of Ai Weiwei’s first US museum retrospective at the Hirshhorn, alas, the artist proved his importance by not being in attendance. Still stripped of his passport and unable to leave China, upcoming events across the East Coast were canceled, including a talk in defense of free speech at the PEN World Voices Festival and scheduled panels at Harvard’s Fairbank Center and Princeton University. Happily, despite these setbacks, his lifestyle under house arrest and constant surveillance made mild progress last month when he was allowed to leave Beijing for the first time since his eighty-one-day detention in spring 2011. His continued success and prolific output in spite of limitations on his freedom are testament to the fact that, when art is motivated by a higher, political cause, a lot can be accomplished in absentia. If it matters, Ai never goes to openings in his hometown either.
But Ai was sorely missed. The Hirshhorn show is the first location of a four-stop museum tour, and showing in the US capital added a special political dimension to his art, which now seems inextricable from his activism. A smattering of his works are spread across the entire second floor of Gordon Bunshaft’s cylindrical museum, from early NYC photography to his later installations, like a swarming pile of ceramic “river crabs” (a Chinese pun on “harmony,” meaning to “silence” someone’s dissenting voice), and rebar reclaimed from the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. (Versions of the same new works just went on view at Mary Boone Gallery in New York.)
During the opening’s early hours, the works seemed to outnumber the guests. Ethan Cohen, the NYC dealer who gave Ai his first show in the 1980s, was inspired––grabbing my elbow, he raced with me through the claustrophobic hall to the end of the exhibition. We halted before two black-and-white photographs from the “Studies in Perspective” series, which I’m told were hung in this location at the artist’s behest: One features the artist’s middle finger saluting Tiananmen Square, the other, the same finger at attention before the White House. Perhaps this isn’t merely about China. Cohen implied that the Chinese might take the insult personally, or maybe audiences in DC would assume that his brand of criticism was reserved for China, but having both of these on display in the US capital . . . “You can do this kind of thing in the US, and Weiwei was impressed by that.”
Upstairs, beside the enormous, showy Cube Light that is now a part of the Hirshhorn’s permanent collection, collector Urs Meile surprised me by arguing that this is Ai’s most complicated show to date. (Quite a feat considering past projects, like the one hundred million ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate, or Fairytale, featuring 1,001 Chinese travelers to Kassel.) I was struck by how many of the Hirshhorn works evinced a heady copiousness: 160,000 crystals strung onto lights, thirty-eight tons of reclaimed rebar, five thousand names, two enormous bowls of innumerable freshwater pearls, and a floor covered two-inches thick in pu’er tea leaves. It simply couldn’t be “Chinese art” without some impressive statistics.
The party retired to a hors d’oeuvres–style dinner in a tent outside in the sculpture garden. There were rumors that corporate sponsors were put off by the exhibition’s controversial nature, but this was also the first such party that the museum had ever hosted. After Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek thanked the board for “allowing” them to do “this kind of show,” I ran into E-Shyh Wong, the representative from Beijing’s FAKE office, whose father once gave an impoverished Ai money when he was broke and living in New York. Mori Museum chief curator Mami Kataoka spoke about her own work on the show and all the requisite sadness was expressed at the artist’s absence, when finally, in a corner of the room where Mary Boone and Tom Arnold were holding court at perhaps the only proper sit-down tables under the tent, a screen lit up with a prerecorded video postcard from Beijing. Dressed in trademark casual blue-grays, Ai spoke in his charming broken English, apologized for his absence, and invited criticism from the audience about the show itself.
There wasn’t much in the way of criticism at a Hirshhorn-hosted panel on “art and social change” the next afternoon. The discussion featured Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and curator Roger M. Buergel (of Documenta 12), with news anchor Judy Woodruff moderating. “It’s a nice break from the presidential campaign,” she opened before the packed auditorium hall. Brzezinski was former US security advisor to the Carter administration, and is known not only for helping normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, but also for encouraging dissidents to undermine the Soviet Union. Clearly well read on Ai’s blog writings, he cited them several times, also stressing the importance of the US-China relationship. Not surprisingly, throughout the discussions, the visual arts seemed like mere afterthoughts to musings on Ai’s sociopolitical significance.
Buergel expressed what looked like mild irritation at the conflation of Ai’s work with freedom of speech. He warned about taking quotes out of context—using them as “stand-in for a discourse”—and the dangers of over-politicizing Ai’s oeuvre. Spivak obsessed over a Heideggerian interpretation of Ai’s work, arguing that the “meaning is in the use,” and eventually drawing parallels between Ai and Gandhi. Brzezinski, ever the diplomat, described Ai’s detention as one of those “occasional manifestations of repression,” while leveraging criticism at the “far from perfect” democracy in the US. There was an acknowledgment about potential issues regarding inequality of access to digital technologies, but the speakers were generally in agreement: Ai is an instance where digital media functions as social medicine rather than poison.
Brzezinski reminded us that totalitarian societies were the first to shamelessly employ art in the service of politics, paraphrasing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said that, for a writer, exile is a fate worse than death. My mind instantly flashed back to Ai’s middle finger, triumphant and irreverent before both the Tiananmen gate and the White House. Whatever the artist left unsaid would be veiled in his absence; he may be imprisoned in some sense, but at least he’s not in exile.
AT THE AGE OF TEN, the Frieze Art Fair has spawned two progeny. The New York offspring, born last May, offered the same looks-like-art collectibles as the London original, but housed them in a better tent. Last Tuesday, the art stork arrived home in Regents Park with a refined historical sibling, Frieze Masters, promising to connect ancient and modern under a single roof.
Having pretty much vanquished the Armory Show—and absorbed the lessons of New York—Frieze cofounders Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp appeared to many to be pulling a Maastricht. The new fair, directed by Victoria Siddall, put 101 dealers of antiquities, medieval, modern, or contemporary art under a lovely tent designed by architect Annabelle Selldorf, who banished the white cube from half of it. Walls were gray and lighting was dimmed low enough to respect merchandise that dated from 2,000 BC to 2,000 AD.
Some stands, like Richard Feigen’s, ran almost the whole gamut, while Robillant & Voena mixed 1960s Enrico Castellani paintings with nineteenth-century examples by past Italians. De Jonckhere held fast to Breughel and Cranach in a traditional, museological hang. Baccarelli Botticelli, on the other hand, mounted medieval and Renaissance-era figures on attractive white, packing-crate plinths—a radical presentation in this corner of the sublime. Gerard Faggionato piggybacked on exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery and at Frith Street with back-catalogue ’80s works by Thomas Schütte, and Aquavella fanned out Picasso, Matisse, Magritte, and Diebenkorn paintings as if they were a deck of souvenir cards in a museum gift shop. “There’s never enough art history,” observed Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, ricocheting between millennia with other contemporary art–minded types like auctioneer Simon de Pury, Prada Foundation curator Germano Celant, and High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani.
Left: Hubert Winter and Gabriele Schor. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg.
There’s never enough art, period. How else to account for the proliferation of fairs around the globe? Overall, the action felt more like a treasure hunt than a sales convention. Taking a break from setting up his booth at what is now called Frieze London, dealer Aurel Scheibler spotted a surprising 1915 drawing by Duchamp at Galerie 1900-2000 that escaped others. Most contempos concentrated on the modern half of the tent, and the twenty-two-gallery “Spotlight” section devoted to heartwarming, single-artist presentations curated by Adriano Pedrosa. Exposure is key to building a market, and here it was for neglected or undervalued women like Lygia Pape, Sanja Iveković, and Birgit Jürgenssen, a Viennese feminist whose poetic/ironic works at Galerie Hubert Winter made her appear worthy of the attention that Alina Szapocznikow is getting at MoMA in New York right now.
But the spotlight wasn’t only on women. Leo Koenig brought unsung photographs by Sigmar Polke, and Andrew Kreps drove collectors like Thea Westreich into a frenzy of delight with his hang of Robert Overby paintings. “Wrap it up and ship it,” she said, sinking into a chair and clearly shopped out. “It’s so good I’m exhausted!”
Dealers in Mayfair weren’t about to give anyone a rest. The evening brought openings for Peter Doig, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Piotr Uklanski, and “Bad for You,” a group exhibition of American art put together at Shizaru by the indefatigable collector Beth Rudin DeWoody. It attracted too great a swarm for viewing, while Toby Ziegler sent viewers several stories underground into an installation of cryptic sculpture and projected photographs that suggested the Guernica was painted in a cave.
Leave it to Laura Owens to raise the bar, which she did at Sadie Coles’s big and bright New Burlington Place gallery. Owens’s cacophonous “Pavement Karaoke/Alphabet” paintings spun her in yet another new direction—Portland Place, to be exact, where Coles, Gavin Brown, and Gisela Capitain held a dinner in her honor for at least a hundred. “When Laura paints, there’s no looking back,” Brown said in a touching toast that made her out to be tomorrow’s sunshine. “Laura’s got fucking huge balls,” countered Coles, to appreciative cheers from diners who included ICA London director Gregor Muir; collectors David Roberts, Nedda Young, Derek and Christen Wilson; New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni; artists Helen Marten and Jason Woods; as well as Slotover and Sharp.
That was far from the only place to be. Sarah Lucas and Eva Presenhuber were launching “Situation: Franz West” in the Coles/Lucas New Burlington Place project space, with performances by West collaborators Philipp Quehenberger and Didi Kern. Lisson Gallery carried out its usual Frieze Week frenzy with a humongous dance party in St. James’s, while Noble and Webster worked up a sweat on the dance floor at Tramp, which also attracted Tracey Emin, Dinos Chapman, and Joseph Kosuth.
By Wednesday morning, Frieze London was beginning to seem like an anticlimax, but that didn’t stop several thousand people from checking it out. “We’re doing really well!” said nearly every dealer I asked. “We bought a few things,” said Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons. “Small things.” Iasson Tsakonas wasn’t quite as enthusiastic. “I’m ready for something new,” he said, during the vernissage. “Art as an experience has become a bit flat. Five years ago we would have been excited by the art here today. The world has changed but this is all the same.”
It wasn’t the same for dealer Giò Marconi, who built himself a clever new desk out of Kerstin Brätsch’s spray-painted panes of Plexiglas. And it wasn’t all roses for Vitamin Creative Space, the Guangzhou gallery that won the Frieze Stand Prize but inexplicably hadn’t yet sold any of the Pak Sheung Chun works inside it. Too different, I guess. Anthony Pearson, who was featured in the Marianne Boesky booth, had his eye on a painting by Rocky Kagoshima at Algus Greenspon. Michael Stipe, in town to participate in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s “Memory” marathon at the Serpentine, had a nosebleed—because, he said, he was “scared to death” by the prospect, despite having performed for years in front of thousands with R.E.M. For him, going solo was the new world today.
That night, the only gallery to hold an opening reception was Luxembourg & Dayan, for a fresh installation of Rob Pruitt’s “Autograph Collection, 1993–2012” canvases curated by Alison Gingeras. Pruitt was the only artist invited to dinner at China Tang in the Dorchester Hotel, where a fascinating mix of sophisticated collectors, some of whom were new to Pruitt, waxed eloquent in conversations about politics, fashion, fighter jets, and the unwearable new Jimmy Choo stilettos printed with Pruitt designs. Afterward, I found stragglers from other parties like dealer Toby Webster, Beyeler Foundation director Sam Keller, and artists Liam Gillick and Angela Bulloch at the Groucho Club, where Jim Lambie took a turn as DJ and club cofounder Tchaik Chassay table-hopped around the restaurant as if he’d been doing it all his life.
The perfect morning-after pill appeared next day in the form of the relaxed alternative Sunday Fair, enjoying its third edition in the subbasement of a college on Marylebone Road. Here was some of the new-new that might have pleased Tsakonas. Alice Charner’s Backbone, made of floor-bound chrome bars with resin-coated stirrup pants snaking over them, was the “what-is-it?” winner at Lisa Cooley. Ruth Ewan’s oversize metric clock took the cake at Rob Tufnell while Simone Subal’s presentation of ’60s and ’70s paintings by the Kiki Kogelnik would have perfectly suited Frieze Masters. I was fascinated by the Fall’s Mark E. Smith raving turn as an interviewer in a documentary video shot on a battleship in total darkness by Mark Aerial Waller at Rodeo Gallery. And stunned to learn, at Kraupa-Tuskany, that Wyoming was a tax shelter that the collaborative team of Keller/Kosmas (Aids 3D) had taken full, unironic advantage of with their sculpture-as-corporation, Absolute Vitality, Inc.
Even more vital was Bjarne Melgaard’s collaborative exhibition “A House to Die In” at the ICA, while the evening brought a show of Kiki Smith’s new work to Timothy Taylor, and the Emdash/Frieze dinner to the old Central St. Martins school. Frieze Projects curator Sarah McCrory gave a sweet farewell speech in a room lit so dimly it was hard to make out the sense of an evening that seemed DOA from the start. Dinner was slow to come so I left for the coddling warmth of a Webster-Presenhuber-Brown gallery dinner at St. John’s Bread and Wine. But on my way out, one of McCrory’s choices, Joanna Rajkowska, rocked my world when she explained that she chose to burn incense on the ground at the Frieze London exit. The smoke, she said, was like a genie emerging from a lamp, after her search for a miracle that would save the life of her infant daughter, who has a rare cancer of the eye.
I don’t know if art can ever really serve miracles, but it often embraces coincidence, like the moment on Friday that I walked into Tate Modern’s Tanks only to see Chelsea Clinton coming out. She was accompanied by curator Stuart Comer and Bidoun’s Negar Azimi, her friend since college at Stanford. Clinton’s optimism in regard to the coming elections was contagious, and carried me to Lynne Tillman’s Saturday afternoon talk at Frieze, which was all about the slippery slope of creativity. It further propelled me to East End Night, when I found myself walking past all the Indian restaurants on Brick Lane to “#COMETOGETHER,” a thirty-two-artist exhibition staged by the nomadic Edge of Arabia in a humongous former brewery above a vacant market. Here I discovered artworks as critical of the cultures in the Middle East as they were rooted in them—and by the time I reached the Herald St Gallery dinner at the Bright Field I felt both wasted and refreshed. I’d seen a ton of art but none of it touched me as often as the people who flocked to it, whether to buy it, sell it, or just talk about it. The excitement is in the courtship, not the mating. So when the Frieze tents fold, it’s back to the studio, the gallery, the museum, where the romance always begins.
Left: New Museum associate director Massimiliano Gioni, artist Ingar Dragset, and Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. Right: Artist and writer Etel Adnan.
Left: Curator Sune Nordgren and Astrup Fearnley director Gunnar B. Kvaran. Right: Architect Renzo Piano and Milly Piano. (All photos: Jon Benjamin Tallerås)
IT’S TOO LATE IN THE YEAR now to experience Oslo’s famous bright summer nights. So many of the attendees of the recent private view of the new Astrup Fearnley museum looked forward to summertime, when Renzo Piano’s climate- and season-sensitive glass structure will really shine. Despite the seasonal disadvantage, the view of the sunny fjord and nearby islands were still stunning as the dinner for 450 in the museum’s main hall commenced. Anyway, the cohort of overseas visitors was striking in its own right. “Spectacular!” concluded Barbara Gladstone, who was happy with the way the “magnificent setting combines nature and culture.” Like many of the guests, she only had twenty-four hours in town. Hans Ulrich Obrist had already hopped a plane, while Oslo artists Ida Ekblad, Gardar Eide Einarsson, and Matias Faldbakken—along with guests Nate Lowman and Dan Colen—were less likely to miss out on the party.
“Light!” Piano exclaimed in his prandial speech, as he jovially took stock of the elements that he had in mind when he designed the new building. “And water! And more light!” A rustle in the back turned out to be Oslo’s oldest contemporary art phenomenon, the painter Pushwagner, who lived on the streets for years before gaining recognition, and who now sports his own gallery in the surrounding neighborhood of Tjuvholmen. Old habits die hard, and the pint-size man in his trademark dark sunglasses and black suit went through the motions with security guards over a waste bin–related dispute before he settled for an only moderately annoying whispering session with friends.
Once the visitors were let loose in the building, many crossed the canal to yet another wing to see the rest of the opening exhibition, “To be with art is all we ask.” Here, the sprawling show (suffering under a criminally vague curatorial statement that claims it “tells a story”) opens with a room devoted to Damien Hirst. Upstairs, a key piece of the collection, Anselm Kiefer’s The High Priestess/Zweistromland, has found a new home. While in the former building “the Kiefer bookshelf” was installed in a windowless, angle-ridden corner I’d never thought I’d miss, the sculpture is now sadly dwarfed by its new—large and bright—dwellings. “Suddenly, it looks like a Billy!” a local painter sighed, referring to the modest Ikea bookshelf found in every Norwegian home.
Cavils aside, this crowd agreed on one thing: The private museum’s reopening represents a massive lift for the city and serves as a role model for struggling city- and state-run institutions like the National Museum and the Munch Museum. (Both are subject to fiery public debates, location issues remain unresolved, and one architectural competition after the next is held only to see the winning proposal archived.)
I ran into Knut Olav Åmås, op-ed and culture editor of Aftenposten, who declared that Oslo just had become a bigger city. He praised the newcomer, adding that “while the Museum of Contemporary Art is uninteresting, to say the least, and has been so for years,” he hoped the new directorship of Sabrina van der Ley would change that fact. Doesn’t he fear that the exclusivity of Tjuvholmen’s expensive apartment buildings and upscale businesses will create a gated community? No. The influential editor believes that the stated purpose of creating an accessible site for everyone will work out, and he emphasized the casual surroundings: a beach. Small bridges. Green, open squares. Had he actually seen anyone swim? Pause. “Well, this performance artist waded the beach yesterday. Then came the security personnel.”
Others, too, raised eyebrows over how it took a private initiative to put real pressure on the directors of public art institutions. “This inspires everyone to find solutions—and quickly, too,” argued Stein Olav Henrichsen, the new director of Oslo’s Munch Museum, from in between Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided), where he held court with dealer and former pop star (of a-ha fame) Magne Furuholmen. “Take the oil fund. All of it!” joked Furuholmen. (The $570 billion national pension fund is a regular in debates on government spending.)
On his first ever trip to Oslo, the Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong was surprised the city wasn’t smaller. How did he think the Astrup Fearnley compared to its neighboring, leading contemporary art institutions? “Each has a different era in its DNA: The Louisiana has the 1950s, Moderna the ’60s. This is a museum of the twenty-first century,” he said. “They’ve really upped it by 300 percent.”
Vibeke Tandberg met up with collector Erling Kagge and fellow artists Knut Åsdam and Ingar Dragset for a smoke outside. “It’s funny to come home and see this,” said Dragset, who left for Berlin some twenty years ago. “Norway never cared to even have a capital. Now we’ll see: Perhaps people will find it fun to have a truly international city.”
While everyone praised the new spaces, some of us resurrected a recent debate on the “boys’ club” image the museum’s gained after showing only three women artists out of a total seventeen solo shows for the past decade. Ann Lislegaard, the latest of these (though her show was in 2007), joined in. “It’s that obvious link between capitalism and male artists that seems unbreakable,” said Tandberg. “I think their disinterest in taking responsibility for a better balance is their biggest problem. It’s not like it doesn’t show, you know?”
Sara Arrhenius of Bonniers Konsthall was happy with “the Pompidou feeling” of the architecture. But many missed the absent and now earlier greats of the collection: the Auerbachs, Bacons, Oehlers, Richters, Kippenbergers, and Freuds are left out in favor of newer, mostly American and Chinese works by artists like Huang Yong Ping, Matthew Barney, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. “It’s a dealer’s collection more than a museum,” mourned one art historian. “Too much Koons!” But not everyone seemed to have a problem. Said another: “Imagine a peninsula filled with Hanne Darbovens.”
IS THE ART WORLD suffering from collective horror vacui? So it seems every time another big art fair rolls around. No sooner do planes begin to land than the VIP program kicks in, the meetings convene, and the fun begins. This week in London, for example, even before Frieze proper got underway, the social calendar started filling with openings, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners as well as alternate art fairs. (The art world is not a good place for a cleanse.)
Lisson Gallery was first out of the gate with a very VIP preview of Anish Kapoor’s new monochromatic accretions and extrusions in both of the gallery’s exhibition spaces. The presence of Labour Party leader Edward Miliband, whom many here see as the next-generation liberal messiah, generated a frisson of excitement among Britons in attendance, some of whom wasted no time pleading for his attention to various issues. Was he an art collector? “No,” he admitted. “Anish is a friend.” Other friends included BBC creative director Alan Yentob, curator Sir Norman Rosenthal, Serpentine Gallery codirector Julia Peyton-Jones, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, and architect David Adjaye and the woman to whom he became recently affianced, fashion model Ashley Shaw-Scott—the most attractive couple on the scene.
The show included explicitly suggestive tabletop Earthworks and paintings, of all things, as well as a sound work, installed in what dealer Nicholas Logsdail called “a haunted room.” Visitors entered the empty space and stood in silence around a lighted circle in the center. After a moment, a slight tremor shook the room as if an earthquake were approaching. Then it stopped.
Steady on their pins, the elegant company proceeded to dinner at Café Anglais, where collectors like Devi Art Foundation cofounder Lekha Poddar and appreciative American Dylan Cohen could rub shoulders with Miliband, Zaha Hadid (seated to Logsdail’s left), and, as Logsdail put it, “at least one Rothschild and one or two princesses.” The event celebrated Logsdail’s thirty-year relationship with Kapoor—an unusually long association for a dealer and artist these days. “We bicker all the time,” Kapoor told me. “Because it’s not just a business relationship. It’s a father-son relationship. Sometimes I wish Nicholas would be less fatherly and go away. Other times I know he’s right and I should listen.”
Monday morning, Tim Noble and Sue Webster were doing the dog-and-pony act for reporters previewing “Nihilistic Optimistic,” their show inaugurating Harry Blain and Graham Southern’s new space on Hanover Square. As usual, the artists’ shadow sculptures are all about them, but this time they made a giant leap forward, creatively speaking, with sculptures made of bits of wood and old stepladders that stand very well on their own, without the magical-mystery silhouettes they form once the artists set a light behind them. “The best part is they cost nothing to produce,” Webster said. No doubt that will be a comfort to collectors.
Around the corner, the Pavilion of Art and Design was holding its upper VIP preview, where there was an unexpected amount of art mixed in with all the furniture and lamps. “I’m surprised to see my own work here,” said Glenn Ligon, browsing with Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and her British hubby, designer Duro Olowu. Stellan Holm had it, under glass. Mitchell-Innes and Nash showed a stunning Rosemarie Trockel textile painting and a couple of 1960s Kenneth Nolands that Lucy Mitchell-Innes said she found lying around on the late artist’s studio floor. L&M Arts had some surprising and beautiful Yves Klein sculptures, and at Richard Nagy’s booth I found a showstopping 1908 drawing by Oskar Kokoschka that, several hours into the preview, was still available.
The pace here was leisurely, the atmosphere genteel, the lighting romantic, and the general tenor of the work on offer geared to bourgeois tastes. A clear acrylic coffee table by Hadid won the fair’s best design award for dealer David Gill. Yet there was Rob Pruitt holding court in Luxembourg and Dayan’s temple—sorry, booth—its walls covered in hand-painted, red de Gournay Chinoiserie. Pruitt’s glitter-encrusted panda paintings hung on top, accented by ancient Chinese figures all around. That great glitter connoisseur, Martha Stewart, stopped by, much to Pruitt’s pop pleasure, while I wondered why a number of art dealers chose to do this fair over Frieze Masters, which was getting all the buzz. Just at that moment, Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp walked in with Frieze Masters director Victoria Siddall, doing their best to avoid notice. But in London, during the monster of a week that Sharp helped to create, everyone goes to everything, lest any empty space or solitary moment creep in.
That night, amid news of a vandalized Rothko at Tate Modern, Lari Pittman withstood the crowds surging into his first show with Thomas Dane, an explosion of peak painting in both Duke Street galleries. It won him praise from fellow Angeleno Marc Selwyn as well as collectors like the natty Prince Mohammed Al-Turki. It would be fascinating to hear Pittman speak of the visual vocabulary he employed in these clearly metaphysical paintings, if only a quiet moment arrived. It also would have been illuminating to hear Liam Gillick explicate his deeply conceptual “Margin Time” pinboard works at Maureen Paley, where many at his opening actually took time from schmoozing to watch his new film, also titled Margin Time, from seats on a brilliantly designed, multipurpose wood structure installed upstairs.
Left: Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick. Right: Architects Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher.
What Gillick did talk about was his new life as a movie actor. The filmmaker Joanna Hogg, whom Gillick characterized as “a cross between Bresson and Tarkovsky,” has cast him in the principal role of an as-yet-untitled film opposite former Slits guitarist Viv Albertine. As if that were not enough to win him post-punk, real-world cred, he gets to appear naked in a bath. Nonetheless, he said, exposure will be limited.
Dinner at St. John’s attracted a host of East Enders, including the Approach’s Jake Miller, Herald Street’s Nicky Verber, Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick, and Hollybush Gardens mates Lisa Panting and Malin Stahl. “One of the best galleries in London right now,” Artists Space director Stefan Kalmár approved. “Maureen is the godmother of the East End,” said Stahl. Frieze Projects curator Sarah McCrory huddled with White Columns director Matthew Higgs, getting tips for her future appointment as director of the 2014 Glasgow International. “I think of this as the unofficial welcome party for Frieze,” Paley said, with no small degree of pride, noting the presence of Sharp and Matthew Slotover. “They are the masters and we are the servants,” Kalmár observed, slipping into Depeche Mode. I don’t know if he was drawing a line between us and them or between the two Frieze fairs. In England, I guess, class divides are inescapable. Still, whether you hire a car or take the tube, everyone ends up in the same place, wallet empty and bladder full, little sugarplums of art dancing in your head.
NEARLY TWO YEARS have passed since the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set the Arab world on fire. After losing the only means he had left to make a living—a vegetable cart and a set of scales—and then, though accounts vary, getting smacked in the face and spat on by a cop, Bouazizi committed an act of desperation so extreme it sparked demonstrations across the region, to the extent that most of the cities looped around the Mediterranean and down through the Gulf have smoldered at one point or another in the past twenty-two months.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation made Tunisia center stage of the so-called Arab Spring—a series of upheavals that will probably, eventually, need measuring in decades instead of seasons—and the country has since become a volatile laboratory for risky yet hopeful experiments in reconciling democracy, religion, economic development, and, oh yes, the disruptive potential of contemporary art in public space. Tunisia is so far the only site in the unfolding drama where contemporary art has become central, at times violently so, to ongoing debates about how to live, get along, and be governed.
When the third edition of Dream City, a biennial festival of performance and public art, opened in Tunis the Wednesday before last, all of the organizers and participating artists were still reeling over the recent YouTube riots. (You know the ones.) An emergency law had been revived and imposed to ban demonstrations. And no one had forgotten that over the summer, in the posh northern suburb of Marsa, religious fanatics had shut down an art fair, attacked a gallery, destroyed artworks in an exhibition deemed offensive to Islam, and threatened to spill the blood of the artists involved. It seemed an insane time to thread forty-five artworks—most of them daring and none of them merely decorative—into the urban fabric of the medina, the tangled medieval souk at the heart of the capital.
Left: Artist Raeda Saadeh. Right: Artists Tarek Louati and Yassine Meddeb Hamrouni.
But neither Selma Ouissi nor her brother Sofiane, the striking young dancers who direct the event, would be deterred. “Since we started in 2007, Dream City has been impossible to stop,” said Selma. “The reaction of artists and audiences, everyone, was overwhelming.”
“The first edition came at a point when Tunisian artists were suffocating,” added Sofiane. With the festival, “they found an opening. Dream City offered them a space to meet and end their isolation.”
“People thought we were crazy to do things in public space,” said Selma. “At the time, it was forbidden by law for more than three people to be together in public at the same time. But we work on political conditions, whatever they may be. If an artwork happens in public space, it’s a political action, whether we like it or not. In 2007, the city needed this breakthrough. It was suffocating. It was impossible.”
The Ouissis didn’t set out to create a biennial. Dream City was the name they gave to a project called “Unclassified: Tunis,” which they organized for the fifth edition of Meeting Points, a visual and performing arts festival, which, every few years, rolls across a handful of Arab cities (and increasingly, European cities with sponsoring institutions). In 2007, the Belgian curator Frie Leysen assembled the most ambitious Meeting Points to date. (The sixth edition, organized by Okwui Enwezor in 2011, had to be scaled back amid the waves of revolution and counterrevolution in the region.) Leysen commissioned young artists in six cities to curate local exhibitions. While all of the other works traveled (including performances by Walid Raad, Rabih Mroué, and the late Amal Kenawy), the “Unclassified” shows remained rooted in place. In 2010, Selma and Sofiane decided, as an experiment, to run Dream City again. They even got Trisha Brown to participate. In Tunis, Meeting Points became one festival that spawned another.
Left: Artist Mohamed Allam with writer and critic Mai Elwakil. Right: Dancer and choreographer Imen Smaoui.
I arrived on Thursday, the day Moncef Marzouki, the human rights activist and once-exiled dissident who is now Tunisia’s interim president (and whose left-leaning secular party is in coalition with the moderate Islamist movement, Ennahda), published an editorial in the New York Times, arguing, among other things, that extremists had ridden into the political system on the coattails of the revolution, and that despite the recent mob violence against American interests, the region’s broader uprisings were neither for nor against the West but “simply not about the West.”
I was quickly deposited at a Dream City reception, held in the lush courtyard of a grand old house, by a young classics professor who gamely answered my rapid-fire questions about life before and after Ben Ali’s abdication. This year, the festival tackled a predictable if poorly translated theme—“artists facing freedom”—and followed the links among artists across Africa and Asia (and in that sense, Marzouki was right). The reception was so deep in the medina that not one but three young men insisted on walking me out of the souk, and perhaps for my benefit, they laughed out loud at every robed and bearded Salafist who passed us by (and funnily enough, the Salafists laughed back).
The next morning, before diving back into the labyrinth with a color-coded map, a Dream City wristband, and a press badge (so much for going incognito), I caught a ride to a café in Sidi Bou Said, a suburb too beautiful to be believed—all white houses with blue trim and bursts of hot pink bougainvillea framing views of the Mediterranean shimmering like improbable aquamarine jewel. On the way, we took detour after detour. All of the roads around the American embassy were closed. Demonstrations had been called for after Friday prayers, but nothing major materialized in Tunis, and throughout my stay, the biggest threat to my person was nicking a shin on the concertina wire coiled around foreign embassies and government ministries.
Left: Artist Mustapha Benfodil. Right: Film critic Tahar Chikhaoui with artist Tobi Ayedadjou.
At the café, I found Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the Brussels-based Egyptian curator and de facto godfather of Dream City. Fetouh started Meeting Points a decade ago, directs the Young Arab Theatre Fund, and is currently at work on the next edition of the Home Works Forum in Beirut. With Christophe Slagmuylder, director of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Belgium, I got Fetouh’s take on the history of Dream City thus far. “It wasn’t just the political situation that was suffocating when they started,” he said. “The artistic landscape was totally closed, with the same artists always in the same museums, the same theaters, the same festivals. Something had to happen from inside the art scene. It was a real breakthrough.”
So what now, after the revolution and the end of Ben Ali’s regime? For answers, we headed to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where much of the revolution occurred, and Bab Bhar, one of the ancient gates into the medina, which was crammed with riot police looking lost and bored. We caught up with Raeda Saadeh, the Palestinian artist who had done a performance the day before involving a dress like that of a whirling dervish but with sixty meters of fabric splayed around her and gradually covered with wishes written on tiny bits of paper thrown for good luck from the crowd. Throughout the day, gangs of young girls, all Dream City devotees, asked to have their picture taken with her.
We tumbled into a shuttered storefront, where Souad Ben Slimane, a journalist and actress, was performing Fin de Série, about the trials and tribulations of a prostitute entering middle age. We packed into a coffee shop to watch video documentation of Mohamed Allem’s Yao-Ming Tunis, a mostly failed attempt to paste monochromatic posters of the Yao Ming meme throughout the medina. (None of them lasted very long before being scribbled over—as in, “F##K EUROPE, I ♥ TOUNESS”—or torn down.) And we nearly got caught up in the dancer and choreographer Imen Smaoui’s mesmerizing Électron Libre, which she describes as a reenchantment of the city. Two musicians attract an audience and then Smaoui picks through its members to find a dance partner—or, more accurately, to engage a total stranger in a highly charged emotional tussle under the saddest of concrete planted trees.
There was no one on the level of Trisha Brown this year, but Malek Sebaï, a contemporary dancer classically trained in ballet, choreographed a strange and wondrous marriage between minimalism and older, more popular forms of Arabic dance in a piece called Khira w Roshdi. Basim Magdy’s video My Father Looks for an Honest City was beautifully installed in a villa; Hassan Khan’s Blind Ambition less so in a culture club named for Tahar Haddad, an early-twentieth-century feminist. We searched in vain for a peripatetic performance by the Beninese artist Tobi Ayedadjou. But we did find the Algerian journalist and playwright Mustapha Benfodil, reading out loud in a library and performing a piece about censorship that had him hunched over a pile of banned books. “I am sorry for the books,” he said. “It’s as if they are crying. But I won’t light them,” he added, snapping his thumb. “They won’t burn.”
As the day wore on, it become harder and harder to distinguish works for the festival from the everyday drama of Tunisian street life. By evening, I thought nothing of an actor in a lab coat pushing a hospital gurney topped with cactus fruit through the narrow alleyways, or a dozen university students running around the medina dressed in cardboard boxes with face paint and Zoro masks. Dream City or not? Did it matter? And yet all of this was tinged with a bit of tragedy, with the sense that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was nothing if not theatrical, an unparalleled public performance.
On Saturday morning I met Selma and Sofiane for breakfast and found them in a reflective mood. “The danger now,” said Selma, “is that different people are trying to instrumentalize art to say it’s about this or that secular or Salafist position. The society has become so divided.” Political censorship had given way a kind of moral or social censorship, and in the meantime, government ministers were passing by, telling the Ouissis they were eager for Dream City’s audiences. “When we decided to go down to the street,” said Sofiane, “it was because of the desire we had as dancers and choreographers without a space to experiment to reclaim public space for citizenship. The street belongs to the people. Our art is to create space in the city.”
Left: Designer Yacine Blaiàech and translator Dhouha Bokri of Equipe Dream City. Right: Artist Moufida Fedhila.
IT’S CURIOUS HOW OFTEN the international art caravan skips Vienna. With its Baroque palaces, splendid museums, luscious Sacher tortes, and an artistic legacy that stretches from the Wiener Werkstätte to Franz West, this imperial city has all of the elements that usually attract visitors to an art fair from far and wide.
Yet on the eve of Viennafair’s September 19 opening, Russians made up the core of a formal VIP dinner in the Albertina’s opulent Hall of the Muses. Chief among them were developer Dmitry Aksenov and art-investment enthusiast Sergey (“Skate”) Skaterschikov, the pair who bought what had been a sagging regional fair and rebranded it VIENNAFAIR The New Contemporary, installing former Pace Gallery director Vita Zaman and ex–ArtMoscow artistic director Christina Steinbrecher at the helm.
Lighted signs planted on the Ringstrasse to promote the fair featured these two stylish optimists in a photograph that anyone could have mistaken as an ad for a high-end escort service. Though they were nominally the soiree’s presiding figures, it was Gisela Winkelhöfer, an imposing woman with low décolletage and upswept brown hair, who greeted the tuxedoed and bejeweled guests. “I’m an arts hostess,” she said. “I connect people.”
It took only one table to seat the smattering of young New Yorkers—Nicola Vassell, Vito Schnabel, and two Bruce High Quality Foundation members—with the lively Viennese artists Christian Rosa and Alex Ruthner. The evening’s Three Graces—Zaman, Steinbrecher, and Winkelhöfer—all gave pep-talk welcome speeches and brought on the between-course entertainment, the hoodie-suited French artist Theodore Fivel backing the exotic singer VaVa DuDu and the poet Azzedine Salek, who provided a taste of the fair’s performance program to come. After dessert Rosa led the Americans to (naturally) the American Bar. The cabinet-size boîte, which serves whiskey sours over ice in large tumblers, is better known as the Loos Bar, after Adolf Loos, the architect and designer who gave it onyx walls and a marble ceiling. “I’m here every night,” said Rosa, who suggests a latter-day Basquiat. “It’s my club.” And so it soon became for all of us, including Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman and dealer Maureen Paley, in from other parties around town.
The following day, two BHQF animatronic union rats, one a bit droopy, greeted VIP collectors arriving at the Messe Wien for the fair’s exclusive preview—so exclusive that the wide aisles provided clear views of all 122 booths. Many represented the non-EU eastern, central, and southeastern European galleries on which Zaman and Steinbrecher smartly focused the fair, instantly setting it apart from the usual models, which it followed in other ways. A special section, Vienna Quintet, featured art from post-Soviet Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine that wasn’t so novel. Another project, DIYALOG, gathered a half dozen galleries from Istanbul and was sponsored by the Austrian oil and gas company OMV (for which Turkey is a major market).
The fair also had a complement of nonprofits, one of them—the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts—run by New York dealer Irena Popiashvili. James Lindon and Ezra Konvitz had a booth to introduce ArtStack, an Instagram-style collecting game that was just the thing for a fair. Next to them was a stand for the Dorotheum, Vienna’s three-hundred-year-old auction house. Rosa and Ruthner had paintings at Zaman’s old stomping ground, Ibid Projects, where Ruthner was handing out complimentary bottles of wine with copies of Eine, an annual picture magazine reminiscent of an early Maurizio Cattelan–Massimiliano Gioni–Ali Subotnick book, Charley.
Unlike larger fairs, this one made room for galleries less than five years old. My favorite presentations were in two of them, both Italian. P420 was established in Bologna two years ago by Alessandro Pasotti and Fabrizio Padovani, who gave up careers as engineers to deal neglected European Conceptual art of the 1970s, like the Morandi-ish drinking glass paintings from Peter Dreher’s series of five thousand, each one slightly different. Turin’s Galleria Glance showed videos and photographs by Russian-born performance artist Polina Kanis. Right off the bat, she sold a four-thousand-euro video to Art Vectors Investment Partnership, a fund that seemed to command all of the fair’s early sales.
Perhaps summoned to life by Skaterschikov, author of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook, the Vectors had a five-man selection jury that included Istanbul Modern curator Levent Çalıkoğlu, Moscow Biennale director Joseph Backstein, and Kunsthalle Vienna’s newly appointed director, Nicolaus Schafhausen, formerly of Rotterdam’s Witte de With. They cherry-picked the fair throughout the afternoon and into the evening vernissage, when the aisles filled and the energy picked up. “You wouldn’t believe how many collectors here have never been to Vienna,” Skaterschikov told me, allowing that they didn’t know a whole lot about contemporary art but wanted to be part of the scene. “And this,” he said, “is a non-intimidating fair where they can enjoy it.” I spotted Zaman and Steinbrecher flanking a tweedy man with steel-gray hair, followed by television news cameras. He was Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria.
Left: Artists Christian Rosa and Alexander Ruthner. Right: Artist Ed Ruscha.
“I love New York,” he said. “I’m going there on Sunday.” Me too, I said. But first I wanted to see “Impeded Time,” the Lawrence Weiner show opening that night at Hubert Winter’s gallery, where I was hoping for scuttlebutt on the fair. Instead I got artists and curators like Gabriele Schor, who wrote the catalogue raisonné of Cindy Sherman’s early work. Ed Ruscha was just leaving. “He can’t take the smoke,” Weiner said, lighting a cigarette. Later in the week, the two artists would be doing a talk at the glorious Kunsthistorisches Museum, where Ruscha was putting together “The Ancients Stole All Our Great Ideas,” thirty pieces of art and artifacts he culled from the museum’s deep collections. “We’re finishing the install tomorrow morning,” said Jasper Sharp, commissioner of the Austrian pavilion for the next Venice Biennale. “Come and see. It’s brilliant.” (As it turned out, that was a huge understatement.)
After dinner at the gallery, a stop at Francesca von Habsburg’s party for the Bruces, and the nightly revel at the Loos, I was getting the idea that Vienna was not quite as conservative a city as its traditionalists might believe. But tradition returned the following night at the Versailles-like Upper Belvedere. Winkelhöfer reappeared to welcome Viennafair bigwigs and dealers to the stunning Klimt retrospective that Belvedere director and curator Agnes Husslein organized to honor the Wiener Secession founder’s one hundredth birthday. (At the Secession itself, Kerry James Marshall and Anne Hardy were opening shows of their own work, while Alejandro Cesarco was touted at MuMOK.)
This time, the between-course entertainment was an all-male string quartet from the Vienna Philharmonic playing Schubert and Haydn, allowing some in the room time to check their phones, though not Aksenov, formerly a biochemist. “In the Soviet years,” he said, “everyone was a scientist. And we still have a lot of catching up to do, culturally speaking.” Vienna’s central location, he added, made it the perfect place for east to meet west.
And west I soon went, to Amsterdam, for the September 22nd opening of the expanded Stedelijk Museum after eight long years of construction delays and funding crises. This was a tremendous occasion for the museum and for director Ann Goldstein, formerly a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Because the ceremony would take place in the presence of Beatrix, the Queen of the Netherlands, security was tight.
To get in, the one thousand invited guests had to arrive an hour ahead of the 4 PM start, bring their passports, and wait—even Moderna Museet director Daniel Birnbaum, Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong, Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, and architect Rem Koolhaas. No Russians in sight, just a lot of Dutch people and artists like Rineke Dijkstra, Louise Lawler, Christopher Williams, and Albert Oehlen. “We grew up at this place,” Armstrong said of himself and Serota. “It was always the reference.”
At last, the queen arrived and sat through many speeches, including a few by the Blikopeners—teenage museum docents hired to inspire their peers—expressing their hopes for the future. Her highness and Goldstein unveiled an artist-made tapestry that said ALWAYS REMAIN OPEN. And the doors swung wide.
From the outside, the new addition to the building, by architect Mels Crouwel, looked like a white, aircraft carrier–size bathtub; the galleries inside it worked beautifully. And it quickly became clear that during her four-year wait for this day, Goldstein had been busy sifting through the Stedelijk’s superior collection and also adding to it. Downstairs in the bathtub, Barbara Kruger had wrapped the floor and walls surrounding the temporary exhibition galleries with a knockout text piece in black, white, and bright green. Each of those galleries was devoted to an installation by a single artist, Joan Jonas, John Knight, Steve McQueen, and Diana Thater among them. LED-lighted escalators brought visitors directly up to the permanent collection floor, where Goldstein and her team of curators created the best narrative of contemporary art I’ve ever seen, signaling every new moment in art’s advance with a dazzling array of artworks, including Ed Kienholz’s The Beanery, pulled out of longtime storage, and Dan Flavin’s light installation, created for the central staircase, at last taking its proper place.
The hang was brilliant. It started with Malevich and went up to Danh Vo. In one room, a pink reclining figure by Philip Guston was adjacent to a blue reclining nude by Picasso, with a vintage Franz West bench in between. In another, a 1988 Cady Noland (Strapped to a Narrative) lay before a Warhol “Disaster” painting. It was all there, the whole story, with a sprinkling of works by Dutch artists (Willem de Kooning, Daan van Golden, Mondrian). I spotted Serota taking notes, and Marlene Dumas (a featured artist) swanning through. Current Witte de With director Defne Ayas toured with the Dutch dealer Fons Welters and Jennifer Tee, a young artist included in a separate show with a group of her peers, “Beyond Imagination.”
The restricted opening melted into the public opening, which included performances by musicians and dancers at points around the museum. The party went on till 11 PM, with cocktails and food passed in the courtyard outside. “Everyone is here because they love Ann,” said artist Piero Golia, who had flown in from LA. “It’s very romantic.”
Left: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota. Right: Judith Keller with Fondation Beyeler director Samuel Keller.
LAST MONTH, a stalwart crew of art critics, academics, and enthusiasts huddled in the cold rain on the border of Europe and Asia to celebrate the opening of the second edition of the Ural Industrial Biennial of Art. The project is the crown jewel in the waning empire of Russia’s National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA), which actively maintains outposts in Saint Petersburg, Nizhnyi Novogorod, and Kaliningrad, but generally only makes the papers with its yearly Innovation prize. In the face of competition from private ventures like the Garage and the Strelka Institute, NCCA has struggled to keep its foothold, and is currently watching plans for its government-funded, architecturally aspirant Moscow museum get shelved. “They tell us now is the time to find an old factory, not to build something new,” director Mikhail Mindlin explained over breakfast at our Ekaterinburg hotel. “The reality is, the time to find an old factory was five years ago. Now there just aren’t any old factories left anywhere near Moscow.”
Meanwhile in the Urals (the mountainous region dividing Europe from Asia), one can’t take two steps without tripping over an abandoned industrial complex, which is precisely what gave NCCA Ekaterinburg director Alisa Prudnikova the idea for the biennial. Blonder and bubblier than one might expect of a native Siberian, Prudnikova is proof that women don’t have to don a balaclava to make a mark within the Russian art scene. An advocate for the idea that there’s more to the world’s biggest country than its stock-villain capital city, she’s also helped advertise that Ekaterinburg—currently a dark-horse candidate to host Expo 2020—was once the center of the international industrial project, with monstrous factories springing up overnight, giving birth to myths of Stakhanovites and the boundless might of the Soviets.
“The second of anything is always tougher than the first,” Prudnikova confessed before the press conference. “The question now isn’t can it happen but why is it happening? And what about this biennial makes it ‘industrial’?” To tackle the latter, Prudnikova rallied an impressive showing of the region’s cultural institutions, who each contributed their own exhibition—from paintings of women workers wearing skirts in the foundries to cosmetics labels aimed at educating the new worker population of the 1920s that cleanliness was next to comradeship. The biennial’s residency program put visiting artists directly in touch with the production process in factories throughout the Sverdlovsk Oblast, allowing Leonid Tishkov, for instance, to create a swooping tower of defunct blades from an ice-skate manufacturer, or LA-based artist Yelena Zhelezov to fashion a wearable suit from an indigenous stone whose specific properties enable it to be melted and shaped to contain radioactive waste. Nicholas Fraser simulated the export of the market economy by teaching metallurgical workers how to play softball, while local artist Timofey Radya built a sculpture on the top of a slag heap in Degtyarsk, a company town still celebrated for its visit from President Nixon and his wife.
Left: Iara Boubnova. Right: Artists Ira Korina and Lise Harlev.
It all clustered around a central exhibition, installed at the Uralsky Rabochi Typography in Ekaterinburg. The show’s curator, Moscow-born, Sofia, Bulgaria–based Iara Boubnova (whom locals nevertheless persisted in introducing as “the foreigner”) plucked her title from a line of Joseph Brodsky’s: “The Eye Never Sees Itself.” This claim aside, the exhibition was aggressively self-aware, returning over and over again to art’s inability to supplant other disciplines—namely, history, politics, or sociology. While modestly scaled to just one floor of the former printer, the show was festooned with all the trappings of this season’s biennials (Anton Vidokle? Check. Raqs Media Collective? Check. Slavs and Tatars? Check), while still taking time to linger on contributions from less exposed artists like Lise Harlov, Agnieszka Kurant, and collagist Olga Kroitor.
Boubnova’s slender show (with less than thirty total participants) still faced a gargantuan task: clearing Russia’s notoriously convoluted customs. The majority of the works were more or less held hostage at the border, released on a case-by-case basis that lent a performative aspect to the installation process. For instance, the Oriental rug that made up Slavs & Tatars’ Prayway was confiscated after officials declared it “highly unlikely” that the collective would hold biennial organizers in such high esteem as to “gift” them such an exquisite carpet.
Boubnova remained in admirably good spirits, despite the empty walls. Her curatorial walkthrough was a gracefully negotiated choreography of “Behind us, you should be seeing . . . ” and “To the right, there is supposed to be . . . ” We paused to peek into the facility’s narrow kitchen, where two women hunched over an antiquated sink, scrubbing. “This isn’t a work,” Boubnova deadpanned. “But it might as well have been.”
Perplexingly, one of the works that did clear customs was the IRWIN banner proclaiming TIME FOR A NEW STATE, which was last seen getting pulled from Viktor Misiano’s “Impossible Community” exhibition in Moscow after municipal censors found it too . . . suggestive. When I pressed Boubnova to comment, she shrugged: “I think the most politically provocative work here is actually the boxes”—a work by Nedko Solakov that invited visitors to take out frustrations on a pile of cardboard. “People here have grown up terrified of touching an artwork, let alone kicking it. And now, of course, people are so scared to express political opinions. I think this proposition is very subversive.” A young woman in earshot took this as a cue to gingerly poke the box closest to us with the toe of her boot, then beamed back at us.
That afternoon, we boarded a bus to tour some of the surrounding areas where the artists-in-residence were working. Casually crossing the Europe/Asia border, we pushed on toward Degtyarsk and the slag heap site of Timofey Radya’s installation, where we were greeted by the welcoming committee of a local dignitary, a miner in full work getup, and the Mistress of Copper Mountain, a popular character from regional folklore, who bestows favors more or less on par with the Sea in old fisherman’s tales. This Mistress pointed to the top of the heap, where we could barely distinguish the figures congregated around what we supposed to be the installation. Slag heaps are by nature—or rather, the lack thereof—not designed for press junkets, and the near-freezing rain did not ease the climb. By the time we had scrambled to the top, Radya was planted in the mud, his face in his hands; the sculpture he had worked the past two weeks to build had, only moments before our arrival, tumbled down the other side of the slope. A few brave journalists peeked over the edge to gauge the carnage, while others lamely complimented the view. I asked Radya if he would mind posing for a photo, and he looked at me (justifiably?) like I was insane: “Just take someone else’s photo and say it was me. It’s not like anyone will ever know the difference.” He burrowed his head further into his arms, muttering: “Or ever care.”
What goes up, must come down, even in Siberia. After a truly nerve-wracking descent, we traveled to the legendary Uralmash plant, whose adjunct museum, the Orgzhonikidzevsky Cultural Center, was hosting an exhibition curated by the Hermitage’s Dmitry Ozerkov. The show brought young Russian artists like Ivan Plyusch and Andrey Kuzkin into conversation with Fischli & Weiss’s The Way Things Go, a piece that, in the context of the day, took on more relevance than the curator perhaps intended.
The next morning kicked off with a two-hour bus ride to Nizhnyi Tagil. If, as art historian David Raskin observed, we seemed to be going backward all week long, our first stop at the Levikha House of Culture confirmed his hunch, flanked as it was by a red star and sickle, with a statue of Lenin dead center. Street vendors squatted in the foyer. Upstairs, a folding table offered plates of greasy cabbage pies and Nescafe in plastic cups. Before we could indulge, we were pushed into the theater, where we were serenaded by a choir of elderly Copper Mountain Mistresses and their equally aged accordion accompanist. Back out in the entry hall, paintings of local abstractionist Alexey Konstantinov were propped up against the furniture and along the radiators, occasionally catching light from the mirror ball strung up in one back corner (explaining the “Disco Club” sign affixed to one of the doors). Boubnova sighed: “This is really the last frontier of tourism, isn’t it?”
Russian Museum curator Olesya Turkhina shuddered in response. “You have to understand, it’s still the Soviet Union here. These are the people who did the impossible, who built factories overnight so the rest of us could have the Soviet Empire. They worked harder than the human body is made to work, and for what? This ‘disco club’? Workers selling rip-off underwear in the Palace of Culture?”
By the time we reached Nizhnyi Tagil, the rain had made it too treacherous to tour the metallurgical plant itself, so instead we drove slowly through the city’s two main thoroughfares, circling Fox Hill (alternatively known as Bald Hill—the words for “fox” and “bald” are near twins in Russian). As nothing grows in its volcanic soil, the peak is capped by a tiny chapel that doubles as a symbol of the town. Our tour guide was careful to always call it “the tower,” which piqued my interest as to its current function. “To be honest,” she replied, “it’s sort of become a toilet. I mean, everyone goes to the hill to celebrate weddings or hold picnics or parties, and, well, see for yourself—there are no trees up there.”
We took her word for it, instead gathering down by the river to watch Nicholas Fraser’s Ground Rules, which pitted teams of workers from Nizhniy Tagil Metallurgical Works in a near-epic softball match. Fraser may have done an admirable job teaching the workers the rules of the game, but he neglected to educate the fans. (“Why didn’t he just teach them poker?” someone muttered. “That would have been more American.”) As the token American, I tried to explain the concepts of pitching, strikes, and balls, and the nuances of the strategic bunt. “I get the hitting,” artist Diana Machulina said, rolling her eyes in exasperation. “But why all the running?”
“THANK YOU FOR OBAMA and thank you for this fair! From now on art people should flock to Chicago instead of Basel Miami. No one likes Miami anyway.” An effusive Jerry Saltz was happy to give his appraisal during the lively vernissage for the first edition of Tony Karman’s Expo Chicago, which took place in the notorious lakefront tourist trap of Navy Pier. Saltz proceeded to hug and praise fellow critic and artist Robin Dluzen, a former student of his at the Art Institute. “Jerry used to say that I make art like a man,” Dluzen confided while the critic moved swiftly along the wide aisles of the fair, saluting everyone on his path like some sort of statesman or motivational guru. Truth is, Saltz was working the floor in preparation for his keynote speech at the fair the next morning. I didn’t get to see him talk, but Dluzen’s report for New City described the event as a frenzied, “bleary-eyed full house.” From his many disjointed declarations, one in particular struck a chord: “Chicagoans move slow, and our money moves slow.” Who knew that would be the main theme during the weekend?
But I’d be lying if I told you Saltz was the biggest star at the vernissage. In Chicago, where politicians are patriarchs, there is only one king: Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His triumphant entrance to the fair grounds, flanked by paparazzi and bouncers, dwarfed the art on view. (King Rahm was fresh from a weeklong standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union that had ended the night prior. Was he there celebrating or drowning his tears in art?) Also spotted was MCA curator Naomi Beckwith, one of the year’s best-dressed personalities (thanks, Chicago Social Magazine), and Jessica Stockholder, who seemed to enjoy seeing an obscene amount of her combines going up for sale in every corner. A logical move by dealers since Stockholder surely has a captive audience after her recent move to the city. Some say they saw actor Billy Zane, which must have seemed like breadcrumbs to Art Los Angeles Contemporary director Tim Fleming, also present, when his fair’s red carpet attracts A-listers like Adrien Brody. At least local collectors Larry Fields, King Harris, Penny Pritzker, and Sam Zell showed up to support Karman’s endeavor. Sadly, none of the supercollectors who flock to other big fairs were present, which goes to show once again the feeble rallying power of the city’s aging collector class.
While pleased and amazed by the fair’s organization, look, and feel, many dealers expressed disappointment with sales during the busy opening hours. “Let’s wait another day and I’ll let you know if there should be another edition,” said John Riepenhoff of the Green Gallery. Over at Gering & López the hopes of finding a home for a Josef Albers were slowly diminishing, and Belgium’s Tatjana Pieters was surprised to not have people lined up to buy accessible works by Belgian Conceptualist master Philippe Van Snick. Needless to say I was surprised too. Not even the hype surrounding satirist Jayson Musson (aka Hennessy Youngman) and his Coogi sweater painting-collages at Salon 94 could seal a deal that night.
Once the shindig was over, crowds were diverted to another VIP party on the rooftop terrace of Navy Pier, but the strong Chicago winds made it almost impossible for the art gentry to preserve their tidy hairdos, so some of us decided to crash Tyson Reeder’s birthday bash at the Paramount Lounge. There I ran into visiting artists like Siebren Versteeg and Matt Nichols, as well as a bunch of rising stars from the local scene, including Chris Bradley, Paul Germanos, Josue Pellot, and one of my favorites, Heidi Norton, who currently has an impressive show of large-scale herbariums at the MCA. The mood was festive given Reeder’s accomplishment of reaching “midcareer” age, and the vibe was all about raging against attempts to resuscitate the fair. “They should spend that money building a biennial!” I heard more than once that night.
Left: Jenna Feldman, codirector of Aspect/Ratio gallery. Right: Charlie Kitchings of Ambach & Rice and Tim Fleming, director of Art Los Angeles Contemporary.
On Friday I ventured to another party, this one in the penthouse of the W Hotel. But neither the spectacular views of the lake nor the free mojitos could get this bunch in the mood. Some young dealers I won’t name were stressed out, uttering that bromide again: “Maybe tomorrow things will pick up. Let’s wait.” Still, according to some, this fair is just like any other—what makes the difference is the city itself. “Chicago has a higher intellectual level than many other cities I’ve visited, and the panel discussions and tours are impressive,” said Omar Lopez-Chahoud, artistic director of the upcoming UNTITLED fair in Miami, who was awed by the city’s architecture.
But Expo Chicago wasn’t the only player in town. There was also the second edition of Gallery Weekend Chicago, a three-day gallery and restaurant tour founded by Monique Meloche. There I ran into Ohad Jehassi, a collector based in New York who told me that he loves “how exclusive GWC feels.” But what about the fair? “I’ll go the fair later if I have the time, but it’s not a priority.” On Saturday, during the late night party at the Wright auction house in the industrial zone of Hubbard, others confirmed Jehassi’s assessment. Liam McAlpine and Sam Gulino, two collectors from Philadelphia, said they were in town to buy works by Geoffrey Todd Smith from Western Exhibitions. Debra and Barry Campbell from Toronto expressed wonderment about discovering local art star Theaster Gates in Documenta, and noted that they would be touring his studio in Chicago’s South Side the next morning. Had they bought anything at the fair? “Not yet,” they said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Left: Closing party for Expo Chicago at Hideout. Right: MCA Chicago trustee Sandra Guthman with photographer Dawoud Bey and collector Jack Guthman. (Photo: Dan Rest)
By the end of the fair’s final day, 1301PE’s Isha Welsh expressed his utmost appreciation for Karman’s mammoth effort, but also dared ask: “Do you guys really need an art fair?” I relayed that question later that night, before the fair’s hard-core closing party started at the Hideout, to respected hometown dealer John Corbett. The soft-spoken Corbett explained that the fair was successful in projecting Chicago in a different light, as a professional town that wants to be a player again in the international market, and that sales were, at least to him, secondary. But does Welsh still have a point? Ah well. Ask me tomorrow.