“EITHER THE COUNTRY is going to collapse or the people are going to explode,” the artist Basim Magdy told me on the opening night of Photo Cairo 5. We were standing in what used to be a small paper factory, squeezed into a narrow alleyway of car mechanics, metalworkers, a theater, a bookstore, a parking garage, a fast-food joint, and a coffee shop whose spread of outdoor seating—all plastic chairs and high metal tea tables—had expanded exponentially of late. Eleven years ago, the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, anchor of Cairo’s young and independent art scene, turned the factory space into an exhibition venue but left some of the industrial details intact. For Photo Cairo 5, twenty-one photographs from Magdy’s ongoing series “Every Subtle Gesture” (2012) were wrapped around three resilient bits of drywall, each piece matching an incidental image to an inscrutable caption.
Organized by the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC)—a plucky nonprofit founded by a group of artists, photographers, and photojournalists in 2004—Photo Cairo 5 is a month-long series of exhibitions, film screenings, and symposia threaded into the incredible urban density of downtown Cairo. Ever since early 2011, when eighteen days of demonstrations knocked an aging autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, from his presidential perch after thirty years in power, street life in the Egyptian capital’s dilapidated belle époque district has gone into overdrive. In every direction from Townhouse, young men with tables piled high with sneakers, tracksuits, T-shirts, DVDs, cheap plastic toys, trinkety junk, household goods, and mountains of socks and underwear have crowded out pedestrians. Now they are muscling in on the space of Cairo’s interminable traffic, which moves, on a good day, like molasses.
This thickening of activity, with its blasting sound track of old Umm Kulthum songs and newly knocked-out mahraganat (a splinter-faction of shaabi music whose name means “festival” in Arabic), speaks to the exuberance of Egypt’s revolutionary moment but also to the danger of an overburdened infrastructure that has nearly reached its breaking point. Judging from his work, Magdy has a charmingly sinister sense of humor. But he’s just one among many artists in Cairo who told me the same thing: Everything in Egypt will fall apart before the country can be put back together again. “I’m optimistic,” he said cheerily. “Really!”
This, in itself, is progress. A few months ago, Cairo’s art scene was in total disarray. Exhibitions were canceled. New projects never got off the ground. Artists were upset or confused or just couldn’t be bothered to work. “The uprisings that began on January 25 were like the detonation of an emotional atomic bomb,” said the writer and political analyst Issandr El Amrani, aka The Arabist, sitting on the balcony of an apartment he shares with the reporter Ursula Lindsey, overlooking the old embassy district in Garden City. “People are still dealing with that. The Egyptians are not like the Lebanese, who take violent upheavals in their stride. We have no such experience here. People are exhausted.”
And yet, to a sympathetic visitor, Photo Cairo 5 felt like a fresh start, even as it picked through notions of exhaustion, collapse, and distraction for ruminating themes. “The situation now is less heavy,” said the artist Maha Maamoun, one of the founders and board members of CIC. “It is as critical”—the draft of a new constitution has to be completed and put before a nationwide referendum in the next few months—“but people are able to relax. Everyone is realizing it’s a long-term process, the changes we’re going through.”
“The summer was a nightmare,” said Ania Szremski, a curator from Chicago who works at Townhouse and helped organize Photo Cairo 5. “Now things are getting back to normal, which is weird, but people have come out of their hibernation and are doing projects again. People are smiling again. But we’ll see. It’s a moment. We still have the referendum coming up.” (This was before Egypt’s inexperienced new president, Mohamed Morsi, made a clumsy lunge at judicial and legislative power, which brought protesters in their thousands back to the streets.)
Left: Artist Shirin Neshat. Right: “On Photography, at Studio Viennoise” in Downtown Cairo.
In the alleyway on that opening Wednesday night two weeks ago, I ran into the artist Lara Baladi, the filmmaker Sherif El Azma, and the curator Bruce Ferguson, dynamic new dean of the humanities and social sciences at the American University in Cairo. Ferguson, in turn, introduced me to Shirin Neshat, who had just given an artist’s talk and was planning to stick around Egypt for a while to work on her second film, about Umm Kulthum.
Mia Jankowicz, CIC’s artistic director and the curator of Photo Cairo 5, rushed by, engaged in a fluster of last-minute logistical details. The photographer Rana ElNemr, also a founder and board member of CIC, flashed a knowing smile. I caught up with Aleya Hamza, CIC’s former curator, and together we walked to the organization’s headquarters, in a rundown, ramshackle building from the 1940s, dodging accidental street markets along the way. In 2008, Hamza organized Photo Cairo 4 with Edit Molnár, CIC’s former director. Ambitious, searching, precise—that edition may now belong to another age, but it still has proven a tough act to follow.
CIC, the Townhouse factory space, and a shop housing a video installation on Mahmoud Basiony Street are the three venues constituting “More Out of Curiosity than Conviction,” Jankowicz’s main exhibition for Photo Cairo 5. An ingenious title borrowed from Harun Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992), which reassembles the Romanian uprising in 1989 from footage broadcast by protestors who took over the state-run television station in Bucharest, the line jangles with contemporary and contextual relevance.
Early in Farocki’s film, a cameraman’s attention drifts from a speech by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and falls upon an illegal protest. That sense of an accidental glance changing the course of history gives Photo Cairo 5 a strong undercurrent. It also allows for links to be made among the disparate works on view, from Hassan Khan’s Insecure (2002), a series of instructions such as “list ten strategies you use to seduce others,” and Iman Issa’s Illustrations for Future Narratives (2012), an installation of five enigmatic slide projections, to the hyperstylized video The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012), by Elizabeth Price, a Turner Prize nominee.
On my way back to the factory, I stopped by Szremski’s opening at Townhouse, “Liminal State,” featuring four videos by three former artists-in-residence who deal more or less explicitly with the revolution. Then I ducked into another opening around the corner, at the grand, disheveled Hotel Viennoise, where the artist Heba Farid, yet another CIC founder and board member, was setting up a fully functional photo studio.
Strangely, “On Photography, at Studio Viennoise,” an exhibition paying tribute to all things archival, is everything that Photo Cairo 5 is not—playful, broadly accessible, and thoroughly devoted to the history and material of the medium. When I asked Jankowicz if she thought it was audacious to include a work like Khan’s, consisting solely of text—or Mahmoud Tarek’s sound installation, or Noura Seif’s sculptures and drawings (arranged around a single snapshot taped to the wall)—in a show about photography, she batted away the question and said: “Everyone knows the history of Photo Cairo and CIC.”
That may be true if your world is Egypt, or Cairo, or a few downtown neighborhoods—and if you’re OK measuring everyone in dozens rather than hundreds or thousands. If not, what is the history? It’s complicated, but Maha Maamoun sums it up succinctly enough: “CIC inherited Photo Cairo from Townhouse. We didn’t create it. Video started to appear in the third edition. It has developed a different history since then.”
Because Wednesday was New Year’s Eve (according to the Islamic calendar), it was a dry night everywhere except the little known Emad El-Din outpost of the Greek Club, which is where everyone—everyone!—from Photo Cairo 5 ended up. The next morning and throughout the days to follow, I heard plans for new galleries, read through exhibition proposals, looked at new projects, and listened, generally, to the clicks and whirs of Cairo’s most interesting minds at work.
Still, it’s been a rough year, and not everyone or everything was fine. On November 14, a strike shut down the city’s entire subway system for the first time since it opened in 1987. That night, passersby in the posh suburb of Heliopolis noted that a tram had caught fire and was slowly burning down to embers. Three days later, a horrific accident in Assiut killed forty-three children, aged four to six, on an outing from their nursery school, when a train crashed through their bus. “The infrastructure of this country,” one artist mumbled, “is going to kill us all.”
On Saturday, Jankowicz convened a daylong symposium at the Goethe Institute on art, revolution, and representation. Despite fine contributions by the art historian Angela Harutyunyan, the conservation architect May Al-Ibrashy, and the artist-activist Jasmina Metwaly, of the Mosireen collective, the topic seemed already stale, the debates too cautious, and the tendency too easy to make scapegoats of foreign curators—who do not, in the end, make their good or bad exhibitions alone.
After the symposium, I met the photographer Osama Dawod and we jumped in a cab, crossed a set of train tracks on foot, and then hopped in a tok-tok, which brought us deep into Ard El-Lewa, a sprawling informal settlement (i.e., slum) on former farmland in western Cairo. There, the artist Asunción Molinos Gordo had opened a restaurant in a gallery that was equal parts installation and performance. On issues of food security and agricultural sovereignty, the piece was a revelation, and is constantly evolving over the course of its four-week run (from haute cuisine to street food to trash before returning to the soil itself).
As I left the neighborhood and made my way to the art space in Agouza known as Beirut—where the curators Sarah Rifky and Jens Maier-Rothe were hosting a reception for Photo Cairo 5—I remembered something Hassan Khan had said. “I think a lot of the younger artists here are way beyond this point of exploiting the revolution or not. There’s something healthy about the work that’s being done by the people who lived through this thing. I’m not worried,” he said. “Really I’m not.”
DIVINING HIERARCHY AND POLITICAL WILL from ceremonial detail is an art, and nowhere more so than in China, where the political system is opaque and lives have literally hung in the balance of imperial banquet seating arrangements. So it was the week before last, when Beijing played host to the eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a scripted political circus that saw Xi Jinping—the ultimate compromiser’s compromiser, if you will—succeed Hu Jintao as grand poobah of the realm. China watchers scrutinized the new leadership’s dress and demeanor for the slightest indicators of their intentions—red tie for reform, or was that a cryptic half-smile for the status quo?—but really, who the hell knows.
And so it was at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, where UCCA rolled out its red carpet to celebrate the center’s fifth anniversary, just a few days after the Communists had rolled up theirs. Gao Gao, UCCA’s newly arrived donor relations manager, fresh off a stint at the Serpentine Gallery, had masterminded the evening’s events: champagne reception, silent auction, gala dinner, and afterparty. As revelers arrived, art-world insiders were, as always, closely attuned to the Kremlinology of who was invited, where they were seated, and how the center would choose to present its bumpy five-year history.
As attendance goes, there were no surprises among UCCA principals—founders Guy and Myriam Ullens gamely posed for photos with UCCA CEO May Xue and director Philip Tinari. Former director Jérôme Sans showed up, mingling over champagne in the nave with his cabal of European supporters, but Fei Dawei, the curator who served as the center’s first artistic director, sent his regrets. “The Ullens always do things so extravagantly,” an artist groused as he sipped the free champagne.
Yet the evening was designed to be a little more than your average lavish anniversary fête. In a cultural landscape where sybaritic feasts are typically the province of corrupt mandarins practicing late Roman degeneracy, this gala dinner had the distinction of being not only self-congratulatory but also self-supporting. Tables sold for between 30,000 to 100,000 RMB to the center’s supporters. After years of experimenting with various financial models, and to no small amount of criticism—selling off the collection to fund operations, indulging in corporate collaborations, searching in vain for a Chinese partner—the philanthropy model, so pedestrian elsewhere, was finally being test-run in Beijing.
After drinks, guests were led into a section of UCCA’s main hall, cordoned off for the event and set with a stage plus fourteen tables. Patrons who had splashed out for tables included a range of individuals and organizations that mostly consisted of galleries, but also Sotheby’s, Art Beijing, Christian Dior, web developers Plus Factory, art shippers Hai Long, and facilities managers Aden Services. Donors helmed their tables as if they were fiefdoms, themselves tributaries to UCCA. Lu Jie of Long March Space brought along two UCCA veterans, artists Qiu Zhijie and Xu Zhen, while Waling Boers of Boers-Li Gallery brought artists Qiu Xiaofei, Song Kun, Chen Yujun, and Huang Rui. White Space’s Tian Yuan had invited artists Li Shurui and He Xiangyu, and behind me Lu Jingjing of Beijing Commune sat with Wang Guangle and Zhao Yao.
My table was cohosted by Arthur Solway of James Cohan Gallery and Yashian Schauble of the Australia China Art Foundation, there with artists Sonia Payes, Yun-Fei Ji, Wang Gongxin, Lin Tianmiao, Gao Weigang, and Parkett’s Dieter von Graffenried. As we settled in, talk show host Chen Luyu—“China’s Oprah” minus the media empire and more than a few pounds—made her way to the stage to serve as the evening’s emcee. After the obligatory felicitations and opening statements, a video narrated by Xu Jiang, president of the China Art Academy and nephew of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, played, featuring milestones in UCCA’s history juxtaposed with that schmaltzy favorite of government officials and philanthropists alike, footage of small children enjoying themselves at UCCA educational events.
FLO Prestige, whose restaurants serve the French food of choice for Chinese arrivistes, catered the meal. As the evening’s dinner was served, it became apparent that each course would be paired not just with wine, but a performance arranged by MadeIn Company, who had provided “artistic direction” for the evening. Magicians followed the foie gras, while a Jessica Rabbit imitator crooned as seafood vols-au-vent were cleared away. Toasts and speeches were made at points in between. When Tinari took to the stage, he exercised the assimilated expatriate’s vanity of acting as his own interpreter, concluding his remarks by invoking the UCCA’s three responsibilities—to its supporters, to its public, and to art—in joking tribute to the “three responsibilities” that Xi Jinping had outlined the week before.
Then the food, and the performances, escalated. Longevity noodles were served. Tracksuited dancers slung noodle dough over their heads to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” And finally, after a main course of seared Australian beef tournedos, the lights dimmed and four oiled bodybuilders emerged under the spotlight. “This is too much, too much!” a writer at my table shrieked as the men flexed and clenched muscle groups to Sarah Brightman’s “A Question of Honour.” Li Shurui got up from her table to poke the thigh of the nearest bodybuilder, one index finger outstretched, and even Lin Tianmiao, the seasoned gala dinner attendee and ruthless fruit ninja seated to my right, looked up from the carnage on her iPhone.
Last, an anniversary cake was wheeled out to Handel’s Messiah. I fully expected someone to burst out of it, but later Gao and Tinari told me they had decided against it, the lessons of Marina Abramović’s 2011 Los Angeles MoCA gala fresh in mind. (Performers are performers, and food is food, and never the twain shall meet.) As guests lugged gift bags of limited-edition prints and plates to the nearby Xian bar for the afterparty, it seemed UCCA’s new funding initiative had gone off without a hitch—a promising start to the next five years.
IT WAS ALREADY a heady atmosphere by the time the Georgian capital of Tbilisi opened its fifth annual Artisterium, a series of exhibitions and public art projects, and the first Tbilisi Triennial, “Offside Effect,” curated by Wato Tsereteli and Henk Slager. The small mountainous country had concluded hotly contested parliamentary elections the week before, selecting billionaire and art collector Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister. In Berlusconi style, the richest man in Georgia happens to own one of three national TV stations, which aired videos depicting rampant prison abuse shortly before Election Day, triggering disruptive protests.
Getting to Tbilisi from just about anywhere invariably requires arriving on a red-eye, in tandem with flights from such places as Tel Aviv and Tallinn, Estonia—a symptom of its off-center geopolitical position. (One bonus: The immigration officer handed me a bottle of red wine.) The theme of this year’s Artisterium was “The Protest That Never Ends,” and curator Magda Guruli made sure politics were central to both the show and the day-to-day discourse. “We had to choose between bad and worse, and we got worse,” she told me soon after I arrived. “The Russians are coming back.”
At the Karvasla (Tbilisi History Museum) we toured “Nine Dragon Heads,” a room full of video, photo, and performance installations by the artist collective Nomadic Party; much of the work took off from the group’s recent road trip from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Tbilisi, and focused largely on the rapidly shrinking Aral Sea. From there we moved on to the State Museum of Georgian Literature, only to find that the Polish Embassy had taken down the show “Banners & Diaries” two days early: The former cultural attaché had been replaced right after the opening. “It is so difficult to work here,” Guruli sighed. “I say every year that I will never do it again.”
Undismayed, I crossed town to visit New York dealer Irena Popiashvili, newly appointed rector at the Academy of Art. We took a walk down grand Rustaveli Avenue, passing the recently sold former Parliament building and gaudy Moorish-style opera house, to the National Gallery of Art to take in her wonderfully evocative survey of the first contemporary generation of Georgian artists, “Reframing the ’80s.” “Leaving New York to take this job was a hard decision,” Popiashvili confided. “But I am very proud of my country as the only former Soviet republic to transition peacefully to democracy.” She spent much of the week defending herself on TV against accusations that she was stealing artworks from the school. “Oh well,” she shrugged. “That’s what happens when the government is changing in a small country.” After a glass of wine, we headed to the studio of photographer Guram Tsibakhashvili for a party in honor of artist Vitaly Komar. The Russian artist got along famously with Georgia’s favorite poet, Kote Kubaneishvili, and much chacha (local moonshine) was consumed.
The next day American artists showcased their collaborations with vendors at the Eliava Market for Artisterium’s “Streetwise,” curated by Lydia Matthews, Chuka Kuprava, Tamta Shavgulidze, and Sophia Lapiashvili. Gabby Miller’s videos of bazaar denizens with jarring clips of rural Vietnam spliced in were projected on display screens among merchandise in various booths. Johanna Poethig, who made tire totems, said the best part was hanging out and drinking tea with the salesmen for a week. Aaron Krach continued the previous day’s session of the Ghana Think Tank, which solicits solutions to U.S. problems from people in less-developed countries. He reported: “Lady reads card and says, ‘You’re asking for MY help? You need to help me! You have too much time on your hands.’ ” The local Orthodox patriarch helpfully provided neatly numbered solutions. Meanwhile San Francisco’s Yarrow Slaps performed while the car-parts salesmen got into the groove and poet Kubaneishvili nodded his head enthusiastically to the beat.
A few days later, artist Rainer Ganahl called me to say he was going to the government offices to ask for an audience with Ivanishvili. Among his requests was that the state rename George W. Bush Avenue to Barack Obama Avenue, “since Bush only provoked unnecessary wars and collapsed the economy.” I stopped by the art academy and ran into scholar Angela Wheeler, who told me how to sneak into the backyard of the prime minister’s glass-and-steel complex, situated high above the city like a futuristic fortress. “I hear he meets with random people,” she said. If Ganahl were not random enough, perhaps I would be. A friend drove us to the sulfur baths district and up the hill to the botanical gardens, where we climbed through a wooden barrier and walked along the ridge, past the giant Mother of Georgia statue, to the politician’s back gate. As we walked into the garden, a voice said, “Stop!” My plea was not successful, but they gave us T-shirts for the politician’s rapper son, Bera Ivanishvili, which excited my Georgian companion a great deal.
Left: Artist Aaron Krach (left). Right: Artist Gabby Miller (left).
That evening the Ministry of Culture feted its outgoing administration with the launch of a book on artist Sergo Kobuladze and live jazz led by saxophonist and conservatory director Reso Kiknadze. Ex-minister Nika Rurua, who studied law at Georgia State University and established the Museum of Soviet Occupation, said he did not know what he would do next. “Basically, I’m just a frustrated musician.” At least there may be hope for the practically nonexistent local art market: Ivanishvili, who caused a minor uproar several years ago by paying five times the estimate for Peter Doig’s White Canoe, has a collection said to be worth more than $1 billion and has voiced plans to build a world-class art museum. “Bidzina has bought only the logos of the contemporary art corporation, but maybe now he will do something,” Geneva-based artist Koka Ramishvili said. To which artist Tamuna Karumidze added, “I hope he opens the market to the Russians.”
On Friday, the Tbilisi Triennial began its two-day forum on education and research at the Goethe Institute. Organizer Katharina Stadler and moderator Mick Wilson both touched on the challenges of working with differing calendars and timetables across cultures, while Lucrezia Cippitelli, of Addis Ababa Contemporary, talked about the group’s attempt to set up an alternative master’s program to rewrite history from outside the Western European worldview. Working on the exhibition itself was a lesson in “context-responsive curating, where you get a view on the relativity of your own curatorial conditions,” Henk Slager noted. An object lesson was the case of Hito Steyerl, who had withdrawn her installation two days before the triennial opened, citing a lack of preparation and materials on the part of the organizers. “In my lecture I was going to speak about how stupid it is to think of students as people who need to be educated,” she wrote in an open letter. “Instead, in times of crisis, students by means of protests have taken the lead over and over again and educated not only themselves but whole societies.”
The inauguration of the Triennial migrated from the State Museum of Georgian Literature to the Georgian National Museum, where an installation of Brancusi-like columns made the audience seem like players in Tiong Ang’s screening of his reenactment of Pasolini’s Medea, and on to the Europe House, next to Freedom Square (where Stalin’s grandson still lives). Ganahl was displaying his Bicycle Manifesto, along with documentation of his reading that week of Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. “I love how this exhibition is occupying the form,” said art historian Tara McDowell, who would speak the following week, “and calling attention to the fact that this is an era of publicity rather than criticism.” Or as participating artist Sarah Cowles put it: “It’s like a science fair!” We rushed off to the stadium to see Bera Ivanishvili’s concert. “After all,” Angela Wheeler noted, “how often do you get to see a politically charged albino rapper?” It was more like rapaganda to the converted, with Georgian flags waving all over the place. “Victory to Georgia,” he sang. “Everybody’s happy now.”
Left: Nikolaus Hirsch, director of the Städelschule, and artist Steffi Schöne. Right: A concert for Bera Ivanishvili.
DURING ANY GIVEN SOJOURN in Turin, someone offhandedly remarks that the city, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers and forms an axis of two occult triangles, is the center of magic in Europe. The rumor is so widespread, the enchantment so palpable, it never seems worth questioning. The clatter of streetcars down long avenues lined with maples creamed and burned by autumn, the play of dark and light in the central piazza (a metaphysical chiaroscuro that inspired de Chirico) give the city an aura of noir. All of this juxtaposed sharply with my reason for being there: The pale pink ARTISSIMA signs punctuated the landscape like Chupa Chups lollipops.
Taxis and cars with VIPs seemed to arrive somewhere else. But the writer’s approach to the Oval Lingotto that hosts the fair emerges from the subway and runs past big empty modern buildings and through dark service-y passages and beyond. The Oval—after too many turns and more pink signs with suggestive arrows—finally comes into view, a spaceship of clear glass that, though it lacks the overhead sunshine of Paris’s Grand Palais, gives a sense of outdoors and soigné style that one expects from Italians (though not from the Swiss, with their fairgrounds built for sunless watch conventions).
The front doors discharge the crowd past info stations shaped like giant pink eggs and into the Present Future booths, one of many programs with snappy but oblique titles that can befuddle neophytes. A gang of young curators culled from far-flung places invite young artists (and of course their galleries) to give solo presentations. One of those elected twenty artists receives a prize, provided by Illy, which used to be 10,000 smackers but was this year promoted (or demoted, maybe, if one prefers the money) to a solo show at the Castello di Rivoli.
Or it was supposed to be a solo show. Composed of a distinguished array of institutional directors—the red-lipsticked and black-clad Beatrix Ruf of Kunsthalle Zurich; the droll Gregor Muir of the London ICA; Beatriz Merz, the bespectacled director of the Castello; and one youngish writer chosen to replace Matthew Higgs, who had stayed in New York for posthurricane recovery—the judges, all curators, decided to act, well you know, curatorially, and they changed the rules. Instead of a solo, they curated a small group show opting for a trio of winners, Santo Tolone of Limoncello, Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa of Proyectos Ultravioleta, and Vanessa Safavi of Jennifer Chert Gallery.
After a march for hours through the vernissage, a swathe of the Artissima openers and all the judges joined Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo at her well-appointed manse a taxi drive away. Cindy Shermans peeked from one wall. Blue Rudolf Stingel polka dots danced to the left. Was that a Matthew Barney (or two or three)? Muir measured the treasures adorning the house, pausing in front of a Piotr Janas painting and waxing ecstatic on the Polish artist, who, in his opinion, is sorely underrated. Francesco Bonami passed, and Muir noted the excellence of the collection aloud. “I should think so,” Bonami riposted. “I live here.”
Tucked somewhere in the evening’s itinerary was a visit to La Drogheria on Piazza Vittorio Veneto, about as comfortable a bar as I’ve ever been to, with works by Piero Golia and Donald Urquhart pocketed in the narrow rooms. Another taxicab led to a ballroom for the official opening party of the fair, a ticket that, it was repeated four times, should definitely not be lost because that was it there was no list and forget about getting another one. The ballroom, designed by Carlo Mollino, was Mollino at his best, like some erotic bedchamber for chattering space zebras. Italian movie producer Luca Legnani whispered in my ear that it’s even hard to find photos of this treasure. The party was slightly less sybaritic, the bar quickly running out of everything gratis but syrupy spritzes.
Left: Dealer Franco Noero, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, and curator Douglas Fogle. Right: Inhotim curator Rodrigo Moura and Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker.
Crawling out of bed in your clothes after the first day of the fair with a mouth like a casino ashtray is not an auspicious sign, especially if one is slated to give a public talk in the middle of said day. But later that afternoon, with an Italian guide by my side, the fair came alive in ways that might have easily escaped the lackadaisical glance-over. (The “glance-over” is the official gesture of all art-fairs, one that casts a specific apathetic spell of lethargy, sore feet, and early afternoon vino bianchi at the upstairs lounge.) Down in the Back to the Future section (just behind the emergers up front), galleries presented exhibitions of historical artists. P420 of Bologna had an array of works by Franco Vaccari that included bits of his 1972 Venice Biennale project—a photo booth in the Giardini—which documented an attractive, early-1970s Italian public (not so distant from the attractive Italian public of 2012 surging through the aisles). In the main section, Piktogram/BLA displayed work by Polish artist Knaf and his various associations, collectives, and ephemera like beautiful broken shards of the Polish underground punk scene of the 1980s.
That rainy night all of Turin ended up at a party at Elisa Sighicelli’s studio. Her husband, collector Ruben Levi, ran by, arms overloaded with a collection of champagne bottles for art folk with wet coats and dry mouths. I climbed up past the smoky terrace where half the party huddled, away from the chilly storm, then back down the stairs and into the streets, which were soaked and empty except for taxis ferrying stragglers back to hotels. Turin is a magical city—at Sighicelli’s a white magic, the following morning a black one. It all depends on which side of the night you find yourself on, the great divide being that moment, senza un centesimo for a cab, that you make the long walk home in the cold fall rain.
Left: Curator Vicente Todolí, Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf, and dealer Ludovica Barbieri. Right: MAXXI president Giovanna Melandri.
THESE DAYS IN NEW YORK, coincidences can feel like signals, or even symptoms. At least it seemed that way on Sunday afternoon at the Queens Museum of Art—a long-standing bastion of community building in the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world—where a few hundred people showed up for an uplifting benefit for Rockaway. Framing the event was a show: “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” an impressive congregation of works by artists hailing from countries that were also hit hard by Sandy, lest we forget. “This is where all the big storms begin,” observed QMA curator Larissa Harris as we took in the tranquil and frenetic visions of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico in a section titled “Fluid Motions.”
In the famed Panorama, the museum had just installed “Washed Ashore,” an exhibition of student work made with Rockaway beach garbage that was organized pre-Sandy, and which for now features only one mosaic-like piece. This lone survivor from the project, spearheaded by the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, was a good enough symbol of hope. The RWA, a community partnership that promotes the long-term vitality of Rockaway through conservation and education programs, has been working nonstop to help local residents, and today it was receiving 100 percent of the benefit’s proceeds.
Upstairs, in the museum’s theater, artist Janine Antoni was holding a “meditation on compassion and the nature of seeing.” “I’ve been refining this for a few years,” she told the audience. She divided us into pairs and led a fifteen-minute guided exercise that involved staring directly into each other’s eyes. Based on a text developed by Buddhist Jack Kornfield, Antoni wove in her own remarks, at one point actually reciting a Barbara Kruger photograph: YOUR GAZE HITS THE SIDE OF MY FACE. By then it seemed like I had known my partner, elegant Brooklyn Museum curator Eugenie Tsai, for ages. As if to mock our attunement, a blaring saxophone from a nearby jazz band wafted into the room right at the end of the sit.
“That saxophonist has never had such a rapt audience,” a friend drily remarked later downstairs, while we were waiting for a tarot card reading from recent QMA collaborator Tania Bruguera. (The line was way too long for a portrait by Ellen Harvey.) Cue Bruguera: “I’m donating the future to the Rockaways!”
Around 3 PM, everyone finished up their drinks at the open bar (tended by Duke Riley, of course) or the espressos provided at the other end of the museum (courtesy of Paul Ramírez Jonas) and moved into the Panorama for speeches by QMA director Tom Finkelpearl, RWA director Jeanne DuPont, and Jennifer Bolstand and Walter Meyer from Local Office, a landscape architecture and urban design firm. We stood over the city’s scale model, built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World’s Fair. “To know Rockaway is to love it,” began Finkelpearl, who lives both in South Street Seaport and Rockaway. He added that it was important for the museum to work with a grassroots community group that will stay on the peninsula for the long haul. DuPont affirmed RWA’s commitment to the area, to “picturing what Rockaway will look like years from now, with or without the boardwalk.” Meyer showed harrowing images of the three-story waves that rolled in around sunset on October 30.
I kept thinking about how dead flat the ocean was for much of the summer. “Welcome to Lake Rockaway,” a friend texted one early summer morning. It became a routine. That feels like a long time ago.
Left: Artist Tania Bruguera (left). Right: The band at the QMA with a backdrop by artist Matt Volz.
Just two weeks before the latest exchange of fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip, I traveled to Ramallah to serve on the jury for an art competition hosted by the A.M. Qattan Foundation—part of the larger Qalandiya International, a biennial event and collaboration among seven Palestinian arts organizations. While the situation on the ground has shifted dramatically since then—the political weather is always changing here—this latest reassertion of Israeli military force only underscores the importance of these fragile but enduring cultural institutions.
THE PASSPORT COUNTER at Tel Aviv’s fortresslike Ben Gurion Airport is shaped like a popcorn stand. When I arrived earlier this month, I was gently ushered aside to a small room with a TV unhelpfully perched up so high it was impossible to see what was on, along with a Coke machine and a mostly asleep assortment of Iranian pilgrims. I settled into my plastic throne, and hundreds of minutes later, it was my turn to be questioned.
What do you plan to do in Israel?
I will serve on a jury for an art competition in Ramallah.
This inspired a blank stare on the part of my interlocutor.
But there is art in Tel Aviv.
Two rounds of similarly elliptical questioning later, I collected my passport, and moved on.
The drive from Ben Gurion to the West Bank, where I would be for the next week, is not a long one. About fifteen minutes in, after passing the Moshe Safdie–designed, Blade Runner–inflected Modi’in housing development (it will in itself represent the third largest Israeli city when completed), we swerved off the modern highway and onto a narrow, one-lane road marked by broken-up concrete. This is Zone B, my driver helpfully told me, explaining the A, B, C system that represents different levels of Palestinian sovereignty, or Israeli negligence, depending on who you’re talking to. From that turnoff, you’re not far from Ramallah, one of the epicenters of Qalandiya International.
Naming a biennial “Qalandiya” is at once earnest and ironically bittersweet. A village of some 1,100 people, the site of a former international airport, a graveyard for cars, and a refugee camp, Qalandiya has summoned vastly different images at different times in this region’s restless history. Yet the most pervasive image evoked by the moniker today is that of a mammoth checkpoint that, since the completion of the security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, has been the primary vessel for people passing through from one side to the other for work, school, or medical care. Every day, thousands of commuters—those who manage to get through the pettifoggery of permits—make their way through the dimly lit, cavernous tunnels here. As the site of an airport that until 1967 connected Palestine to the world, Qalandiya is a site marked by paradox; today, it vividly evokes separation.
My first destination was Ramallah. A historically Christian town of some 40,000 full-time residents (120,000 during daytime) spread over rolling olive tree–lined hills, its architecture is marked by a sea of off-white buildings made from stone. After the Oslo Accords, Ramallah became the de facto headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and, as a result, grew considerably, with the environs of greater Ramallah reaching just shy of 300,000 people. Beyond the PA and a bevy of international organizations, the town is also home to a number of cultural organizations, from the A.M. Qattan Foundation—my host, which invests in education—to the visionary Riwaq, which exists to safeguard Palestinian architectural heritage.
I spent my first three days looking at artwork for the Young Artist of the Year Award (yes: YAYA). As ever, the best work—and there was plenty of terrific art—didn’t take advantage of the fact that, for Palestinian artists, courting melancholy can be a lucrative strategy. A fair amount of improvisation was involved when pieces from a couple of artworks were either missing or just didn’t show up at all from neighboring towns or, in one case, Beirut. “The situation is always part of the artwork,” said Yazan Khalili, who cocurated the competition with Reem Shilleh.
By Wednesday, a larger group had arrived in Ramallah, including Frieze editor Jennifer Higgie, poet Quinn Latimer, IKON director Jonathan Watkins, Yasmine Eid Sabbagh of the Arab Image Foundation, and plenty of rugged Scandinavians I never actually met but who seemed to pop up, Waldo-like, throughout the town. On Thursday night, we all gathered in a crumbling Ottoman house outside Qalandiya, only a stone’s throw from the separation wall and its calligraphic marvels (graffiti!), for the biennial’s official launch. There was abundant speechmaking, noteworthy among them a spirited welcome from a village elder, along with a short history of Qalandiya by Riwaq codirector Fida Touma. Not long after, artist Dirar Kalash settled into an electronic performance in a low-ceilinged room, at the same time projecting what seemed to be images of the naqba. As Kalash wound down his moving dirge, we hopped on buses back toward Ramallah and the Riwaq headquarters to wind down the night.
The following day, I visited the International Academy of Art run by my fellow juror the barrel-chested Khaled Hourani. (He bears a strong resemblance to former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, though I couldn’t tell him that to his face.) Hourani is mostly known for his brilliant collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum last year to bring a rare Picasso to Palestine—a dizzying experiment in logistics. Also present was artist Khaled Jarrar, who showed us his new sculptural pieces, Concrete, fashioned from broken-off pieces of the separation wall.
“Is it illegal to steal bits of the wall?” I asked.
“The wall is illegal,” he replied.
Chastened, I turned to Shilleh and asked if she would be joining us for the opening of “Gestures in Time” in Jerusalem later that night, the exhibition curated by Katya Garcia-Anton and Lara Khaldi. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m green,” referring to the color of her West Bank travel document. (The trip was, as it happens, full of the sort of ironic details Joan Didion would lunch on.) Armed with a luxurious blue passport, I hopped on a microbus for four shekels from the Champs Élysées of Ramallah and made my way through Qalandiya—the checkpoint—switching minibuses en route and ending up at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. It was Friday, so relatively quiet, and I followed knots of Filipino pilgrims around, ending the afternoon with a drink at the American Colony Hotel, a nineteenth-century house–turned–utopian community–turned–luxury hotel. (In the 1930s, its regality as yet unfaded, it was the backdrop for much of the filmic version of Agatha Christie’s winning Appointment with Death.)
By 6 PM, it was time to move back to the Old City, and my first stop would be Qalandiya director Jack Persekian’s office which, until 1988 was the site of his father’s bookbinding business. There, I found Khaldi nursing a beer and rehearsing her welcome speech in Arabic. Persekian, always immaculately dressed, gave me a short history of “The Jerusalem Show,” the event he launched six years ago under the umbrella of his nonprofit, the Al Ma’mal Foundation. As the three of us walked down to the launch event through a labyrinth of tchotchkes, pilgrims, and colorful rugs, Khaldi reflected on why contemporary cultural projects were so urgently needed. “We’re oppressed by history.” It was hard not to agree; the scene around us, with all of its unspecific tensions, was about as tranquil as a romp in the overfull children’s playground at Jack in the Box.
We ended up at the site of two beautiful Mamluk-era hammams, where a number of works were sensitively installed, including an enigmatic wall projection by artists Julia Rometti and Victor Costales, and suspended bread sculptures by Mexico City–based artist Martin Soto Climent. From the hammams, we ran around the corner to the Lutheran church that, as one friend remarked, looked not unlike Hotel California, and where Latimer delivered a moving epistolary tribute to eight poets, from Anne Carson to Etel Adnan.
On the final day, Riwaq organized a visit to the postcard village of Abwein, thirty miles north of Ramallah and the site of many of the organization’s most compelling conservation projects. We drove out with Riwaq codirector Khaldun Bshara narrating our zigzag course—lingering especially over the PA’s gargantuan construction of an Emirati-style guest palace (when PA funds froze in 2011, the construction suspiciously continued)—until we settled into old Abwein, which dates back at least one thousand years. There, some of us were shown around by village children, while others took a walking audio tour prepared by artist Uriel Orlow about the lost history of a mental hospital erected on the grounds of a legendary massacre. Eid Sabbagh, her new baby in tow, gave a lecture-performance on the diverse lives of vernacular photographs based on her seven years of living off and on in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. After, a bunch of us spoke with the outgoing mayor of Abwein, a septuagenarian woman with heroically good skin who, in one swift stroke, did away with every standard cliché about the misogynist Arab Street.
That night ended back in Ramallah with the announcement for the Young Artist of the Year Award. Jumana Manna took the top prize, with a video work using as source material an archival photograph taken at the home of Alfred Roch, a wealthy Palestinian who organized a luscious masquerade at his Jaffa house in the 1930s. “Of course, no other animal likes to embroider the facts as much as we do,” Manna’s voice-over reads as the camera pans over the chicly powdered faces of the assembled. The overlong awards speech, written by yours truly, was read aloud in both Arabic and English, making the crowd antsy and sending them all to swarm like bees around the shawarma machine. Lighthearted revelry ensued, of the kind that already now—with the paranoia fulfilled—seems more and more difficult to imagine.
Left: Artist Dirar Kalash. Right: Fatima Taher Sihweil, mayor of Abwein. (Photos: Eloise Bollack/Riwaq Photo Archive)
NEW YORKERS LIKE to say they’re tough. They have to be. Some say that’s why big stuff happens there—because the citizens can take it. And come out better for it.
Consider the humbled art dealers of Chelsea. Just a week after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc throughout the neighborhood, several were ready to open their doors again. They were the lucky ones: Matthew Marks and David Zwirner, who had the resources to speed recovery, and those above street level or outside the flood zone, who just had to wait for electricity to be restored.
The Drawing Center was in the latter group, and the first to put a postponed event back on the calendar. Following a ten-million-dollar renovation, the Center’s November 5th benefit gala unveiled its newly expanded SoHo quarters and previewed three exhibitions, which it now has room to show. On the main floor was “Guillermo Kuitca: Diarios” and “José Antonio Suárez Londoño: The Yearbooks.” Kuitca was showing canvases he had discarded over the past couple of decades and then given a second chance, draping them over a round table and notating the facts of his life in pencil and crayon—flight information, exhibition schedules, expenses, dog names. “This is the most personal work I’ve ever done,” he said. The basement Lab gallery had “In Deed: Certificates of Authenticity in Art,” a fascinating archive of the documents that have made hard-core Conceptual works collectible. “If we’d taken on water during the hurricane,” said director Brett Littman, “I’d have to raise another ten million dollars now.”
As would prove the rule at every reception last week, all conversation began with tales of the flood: horror stories of artists whose Red Hook or Gowanus studios had drowned their work; success stories of galleries whose tireless staffs dried out spaces and rescued artworks; expressions of relief from those who only had to cope with the blackout. “I had to work by daylight,” said Will Cotton. “A new experience for me.”
The new face at dinner, held at David Burke Kitchen, belonged to Suárez Londoño. “He’s a force in Colombia,” said curator Claire Gilman, the first to bring the artist’s work to New York. I wondered what took so long. “I live in a hole,” he said, laughing. “No computer, no Internet, no smartphone.”
Presumably he does have a television, which is what everyone was watching on Tuesday night, when President Obama was reelected—all that needed to happen then. Relief was short-lived, thanks to the nor’easter that arrived on Wednesday with an unseasonable snowstorm. It visited more grief on thousands of outer-borough residents made homeless by the hurricane, and further emptied the still-quiet streets of Chelsea, where two galleries went ahead with welcome openings. “The water stopped next door,” Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher explained at the reception for his postponed Michal Rovner and Edward Kienholz shows, while Johannes Vogt celebrated the relocation of his gallery in a still-heatless building on West Twenty-Sixth Street. And people came out—not a lot of people, but those who could, did.
Weathervane collectors Phil and Shelley Aarons joined about two dozen other intrepid guests attending a private champagne reception for elegant exhibitions by Travis Boyer and two even younger artists that Boyer selected, A. K. Burns and G. T. Pellizzi. “I’m his aunt!” said the snowy-haired Christophe de Menil of Pellizzi. “I was afraid the show would look too polished,” Boyer confessed during dinner at the Hotel Americano. It was also the scene of David Nolan’s Thursday fete for the eighty-eight-year-old Richard Artschwager’s show of recent pastels, “The Desert,” at Nolan’s above-the-flood-line gallery. “We’ve come together to honor the great Richard Artschwager and his best work ever!” Nolan said in his toast. Looking right at Jennifer Gross, curator of the artist’s current retrospective at the Whitney Museum, he joked, “It’s a really fresh, exciting show—even better than the Whitney’s!” She took it in stride. “I don’t know about that,” she said later. “But it’s lovely.”
The same evening, Elizabeth Dee and James Cohan also reopened, with works by Mark Barrow and Adrian Piper (at Dee) and Trenton Doyle Hancock (at Cohan). Both were fortunate enough to escape damage from the storm. “It’s mysterious,” said Dee, whose gallery is located close to the Hudson River. She confessed to feeling a bit guilty to be opening when so many others were still suffering. “But I thought it would make an optimistic statement if we went forward,” she added. Indeed, more people attended both receptions than had been out the night before, but Chelsea still looked more like it did in 1995, when galleries were few, openings felt like exclusive affairs at remote outposts, and dealers were thought to be pioneers.
One of those early settlers was Matthew Marks, who hosted an opening of works by Charles Ray at his West Twenty-Second Street gallery on Friday. Of course, it’s not unusual for a gallery to put up new walls or reconfigure a space for a new show, particularly at Marks, and his crew had been ready to go. So were critics Peter Schjeldahl and Roberta Smith. They joined the universal marvel over Ray’s three stunning new sculptures, seamless figures carved from single blocks of stainless steel with seemingly delicate features, though together they weigh nearly nine thousand pounds.
The crowd at David Zwirner was close to normal levels for its partial reopening, with Diana Thater’s Chernobyl, a multichannel projection of images from a previous disaster site, scaled up to the dimensions of the room. The show had originally been scheduled for January, but Zwirner rushed it into place while the rest of his nearly full-block gallery was undergoing reconstruction and works by Luc Tuymans and Francis Alÿs that had been delivered before the storm were being restored. A high-spirited party at Pravda for Thater, Zwirner’s sixty employees, and friends (Lucy Mitchell-Innes, Tim Nye, Jane Lombard, Cecilia Alemani, Paul Morris) celebrated the gallery’s return.
Everyone had a story. One of Zwirner’s was about the fishing waders he’d bought in Montauk but never used—until the night of the storm, when he needed them to get into his flooded gallery. “I didn’t have to do anything,” said the gallery’s architect, Annabelle Selldorf, when asked about the restorations. “They did it all.”
Left: Dealer Stefania Bortolami and artist Aaron Young. Right: Dealer Elizabeth Dee.
The countdown to full recovery continued on Saturday, with openings for Goshka Macuga at Andrew Kreps, Jeremy Deller and Alex Katz at Gavin Brown, and Edgar Arceneaux at Maccarone. At this point, people were less compelled to talk about the storm than the relief effort that many in the art world joined to help feed and supply people in Queens and Staten Island who were still out in the cold. “I was happy to help pay for the bus and the goods that Klaus Biesenbach took out to the Rockaways,” said collector Beth Swofford.
“It’s been an extraordinary couple of weeks,” Brown began his toast at dinner. Reading from prepared notes obviously written from the heart, he gave an inspired, three-and-a-half-minute history of our planet, including the “random brutality” of the hurricane and the transformation of the first humans from naked to clothed, before moving on to the artists at hand—Deller’s sensitive films of people “on the margins of humanity” and Katz’s excellent portraits of women. “I look at them and think of my mother,” Brown said. “I think of my daughters, my sister, and my friends. I think of my wife. And I see them all looking back with love.”
That’s what was going on in Chelsea last week. Sentiment rules, but so do optimism and faith. By the end of this month, almost every gallery will be back in the game. And odds are that the rest of us will love it more than before.
Left: Artist Will Cotton. Right: Artists Pat Steir and Amy Sillman.
IN MID-OCTOBER, after head-in-the-sand weeks spent at multiple art fairs, it felt natural to seek a little R&R in the country. For me, that country was France—specifically the south of France, and the Provençal city of Arles. I arrived just ahead of other refugees from Frieze London and FIAC, for an October 20th performance by Terry Riley premiering Doug Aitken’s Altered Earth: Arles, City of Moving Images, a gift to the town from collector Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation.
The following Saturday night, still exhilarated by this experience of art, music, and patronage, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held its second annual Art + Film Gala. This soiree, a fundraiser that feted both Ed Ruscha and the late Stanley Kubrick, attracted so many megawatt Hollywood stars that it virtually preempted Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party. And then some.
I was planning to report on these two exceptional diversions before returning home to New York. Hurricane Sandy was heading in the same direction, so I left LA before I could gather my thoughts. By Tuesday, the 30th, the destructive storm had laid waste to a number of galleries in Chelsea, which is where I live, and my only thoughts were of my neighbors.
The events in Arles and LA seemed to have happened on a strange, dry planet I visited only in a dream. Yet both were real and a lot of honest work went into each. Now, with Chelsea in recovery from its near-death experience, I’m turning back the pages of my diary to the days before the deluge, hoping to find the sort of balance that hindsight can bring.
FAMOUS FOR SENDING Vincent van Gogh over the edge, Arles has had a more salubrious effect on Aitken. Over the past five years, he’s made numerous trips from LA to gather material for Altered Earth, both an immersive, twelve-screen film installation and a substantial iPad app released the week of the concert. On the afternoon I arrived, a gentle mistral was blowing through the town, past its Roman amphitheater and out through its walls to the seventeen-acre Parc des Ateliers, a remarkable nineteenth-century industrial site abandoned in the 1950s and now a ruin. Within it, Hoffmann plans to build a center for LUMA designed by architect Frank Gehry, pending the approval of local officials. The Aitken-Riley collaboration was part of her campaign to win them over.
The new building, she explained, is actually part of a larger scheme for an art-center complex that will include studios for artists, a research library, exhibition halls, a school, and possibly a Bard College extension. Hoffmann’s hope is that the rejuvenated park will make economically depressed Arles, her hometown, a year-round art destination.
Inside the Grande Halle—a fifty-thousand-square-foot glass and steel shed retrofitted in 2007 as a cultural venue—the white-bearded, seventy-seven-year-old Riley was rehearsing with his son, guitarist Gyan Riley, and the violinist Terry Silverman, while Aitken filmed their movements across four stages within his installation.
Set in roughly circular formation, Aitken’s two fifteen-by-thirty-foot screens created fantastic allées of projected images from the Camargue, the once-endangered delta between the two arms of the Rhône River. (Hoffmann’s father, Luc, now eighty-nine, is a major conservationist who helped found the World Wildlife Fund, turning his vast, Tour du Valat estate into a research center to protect the Mediterranean wetlands.)
“I wanted to see if it was possible to make a conceptual Earthwork,” Aitken said of his project, as scenes of salt flats, windmills, white stallions, black bulls, Roman ruins, World War II bunkers, burning fields, waving poplars, and birds and other wildlife appeared and dissolved into one another on the screens. “And I really got into the experiment.” The Altered Earth app (a free download from doug-aitken-arles.com) contains the same spectacular imagery, along with a millennium-spanning history of the area, essays, maps, and quotes from people living in the region.
“It’s a place of fiction and nonfiction,” Aitken said, as Riley’s music looped through forty speakers positioned around the hall. “The farther out into the Camargue you go, the more extreme and Death Valley–like the landscape gets.”
Dinner that night was at Villa des Alyscamps, a restored, centuries-old house that Hoffmann keeps as both an office for her foundation and a hotel for guests. The property borders the Saint Honoratus church and its fourth-century Roman necropolis. Stone tombs still line the road leading up to it. “You have to see the crypt,” said Gemma Ponsa, Atiken’s companion. “It’s incredible.”
Under a dark, moonless sky, she led twenty of us—CCS director Tom Eccles, Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf, Serpentine Gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Aitken—through a creaky wooden door in the garden wall and into the necropolis, where Halloween arrived early. With only the light of Ponsa’s iPhone to guide us, we navigated a yawning pit of excavated sarcophagi looted decades before. “This is really creepy,” someone said as we made our halting way back to the candlelit garden. Stepping across the threshold took us from the fifth century to the twenty-first in a back-to-the-future moment that was so stunning it threatened to eclipse the concert.
Which was awesome. Riley’s romantic music perfectly underscored Aitken’s cinematic love letter to the Camargue, enrapturing an audience of four hundred local citizens who included the mayor of Arles, the director of the Arles Photo Festival, and intrepid art types, Lisa Dennison, Bice Curiger, and Shaun Caley Regen among them.
They were among the two hundred invited to dinner at the back of the hall, where Armand Arnal, the celebrated young chef from La Chassagnette—a Camargue restaurant owned by Hoffmann and her film-producer husband, Stanley Buchthal—was roasting a gigantic pig in a truck parked outside the open door. Every now and then, a train would roar by on the tracks behind it, making the whole scene feel like a movie set. When the pig was done, Arnal’s assistants paraded it through the hall past the applauding diners. After a speech by Hoffmann, delivered in French, to toast the artist and the musicians, thank everyone for coming, and boost her plans for the park, her Gehry building seemed a sure bet.
“When something has been incubating for five years and then comes out, it’s an intense release,” Aitken said, hugging everyone in sight. Riley was just as ebullient. “It was so much fun,” he said. “And the sound was better here than in most symphony halls.”
BY COINCIDENCE, Aitken was the first person I saw a week later at LACMA. “I’m still coming down from Arles,” he said, hiding behind a pole in the BP Pavilion breezeway as a mounting number of Gucci-clad celebrities hit the red carpet beside Chris Burden’s street-lamp promenade, Urban Light. (Gucci was the gala’s sponsor.)
Putting on brave faces for the shrieking paparazzi, the stars kept on coming: Jack Nicholson! Jane Fonda! Warren Beatty! Annette Bening! Diane Keaton! Sean Penn! Robert Pattinson! Ellen Barkin! Slipping by almost unnoticed was John Baldessari, one of the baker’s dozen of visual artists allowed into the $5,000-$10,000-a-plate affair, which raised $3.5 million for the museum.
Barbara Kruger and Cathy Opie were also in the crowd. With Ruscha and Baldessari, they constitute the four recent artist-renegades from the board at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Its director, Jeffrey Deitch, has been vilified (though not by those four artists) for attempting to do what LACMA director and CEO Michael Govan has accomplished with aplomb: bridge the gap between LA’s art and film communities. Once a homely also-ran, LACMA is now the robust, ultra-cool, above-the-title player among its hometown institutions and its gala is one of the city’s top social occasions.
As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and Govan was clearly in his element as he and his stylish wife, Katherine Ross, greeted the A-listers and trustees like Lynda Resnick and Steve Tisch. Eva Chow worked the room without her no-show co-chair, Leonardo DiCaprio, welcoming industry heavyweights like producer Brian Grazer, superagent (and LACMA trustee) Bryan Lourd, and Disney chief executive Robert Iger.
This year, the event celebrated the green light that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had just given to the museum it will establish in the old May Company building on the LACMA campus. But no one at the cocktail reception was talking about that. Most merely flashed the work of their plastic surgeons, clearly the backbone of the Hollywood set. LACMA Board member Carole Bayer Sager gushed over the enormous rock that the unadulterated Jennifer Aniston snagged from fiancé Justin Theroux. Drew Barrymore, huddling with Cameron Diaz, beamed at her handsome spouse, Will Kopelman. “He’s pretty on the inside too,” she said.
But it wasn’t all show and tell. “I just had the most amazing conversation with Michael Govan about public education,” said Kruger. “Can you believe it—at this event?” Wandering about like fish out of water were the three musicians from Florence and the Machine, the evening’s entertainment—as if the 550, well-practiced guests were not amusing enough.
Left: Agent Bryan Lourd with artist Catherine Opie. Right: Artists Diana Thater and T. Kelly Mason.
During the lengthy speech portion of the evening, board chair Terry Semel fumbled through his prepared remarks about Kubrick, drawing unscripted quips from the audience that provided the biggest laughs. “I don’t need a mic,” said Barry Lyndon star Ryan O’Neal. “I’m an actor.” Put on the spot to say something about his work with Kubrick, O’Neal didn’t miss a beat. “If anyone asks you to tell them anything about me… don’t.” Semel, hoping for a personal tribute, reached out to Matthew Modine. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last twenty-seven years I’ve been asked what Kubrick was like,” Modine said. “All I have to say is… none of your goddamn business.”
The laconic Ruscha did well on the podium, but it would be hard to top the guy who came on after that to introduce Stephen Spielberg. “I’m here to talk about a guy who’s going to talk about another guy,” surprise speaker Tom Hanks began. “I’m gonna talk about a guy who is a creative genius who’s going to talk about a creative genius. I’m here to talk about a guy who made the greatest motion pictures of our time, who’s gonna talk about a guy who made the greatest motion pictures of all time.”
Spielberg was the only speaker to give a straightforward tribute to Kubrick, the third in his personal pantheon of directors, with David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock. “I’ve spoken to Stanley on the telephone for longer than I’ve ever spoken to a girlfriend on the telephone,” he said. But he really gave himself away when he admitted to being mystified by all the people who dropped acid and smoked pot to see 2001: A Space Odyssey, apparently unaware that the availability of drugs was one reason such an obviously noncommercial film became a runaway success. “For me, Kubrick was the Beatles,” he concluded. “He was all four Beatles.”
For me, Kubrick was one of the few Hollywood filmmakers who was also an artist through and through. LACMA’s retrospective, which has props, scripts, costumes, photos, cameras, and other memorabilia, doesn’t clue to his genius the way the films do, but it was fun to listen to the filmmaker’s widow, Christiane Kubrick. She began her own speech by giving her unreconstructed age, eighty, and went on to relate what a trial it was to get her late husband to care about the way he dressed. “He was a lovely mess,” she said, before revealing the step-by-step process he employed to make 2001 at his kitchen table at home, before computers did all the special effects.
If only Hurricane Sandy had been such a construct. But then came the flood, and suddenly everything before seemed like science fiction.
Left: Collector Ella Cisneros. Right: artBO organizer María Paz Gaviria and former ambassador Ricardo Gaitán. (Except where noted, all photos: Silvia Mora).
“THE CITY’S FULL of dogs with jobs,” noted Irene Hofmann from within the white Citroën van transporting us through Bogotá. Hofmann—the director and chief curator of SITE Santa Fe—was referring to the Rottweilers and golden retrievers who, at the bidding of security guards (or sometimes soldiers in fatigues), nosed through the bags of visitors to the upscale high-rise buildings that compete for views in the foothills arching around the metropolis’s eastern edge. Security seemed permanently heightened. Downtown, at the Corferias convention center, not one but two rounds of metal detectors greeted those of us who’d come to see the eighth iteration of artBO, Bogotá’s international art fair.
Bogotá was far less anarchic now than one might think, everyone said. You had to understand that these security measures were precautions and not definitive indications. But if danger was imagined, hospitality was real. You could feel the excitement of a city ready to return to normalcy, welcoming visitors and beckoning back nationals who’d exiled themselves over the past several decades as Colombia went through unimaginable mierda. With my limited knowledge of Spanish, I had to look up that up—mierda—as in PAÍS DE MIERDA, written in script on a building’s facade along one of the city’s main drags. Country of shit. The words appeared next to a spray-painted portrait of Jamie Garzón, a much beloved journalist who was apparently slain in 1999. Just as striking, and not too far away, were enigmatic black-and-white icons on exteriors of several vaults in Bogotá’s central cemetery. They turned out to be silhouettes, created by the eminent Colombian artist Beatriz González, depicting victims of political violence.
Left: LARA director Amanda Briggs. Right: Tate curator José Roca, Pablo Zuluaga, and artist Juan Fernando Herrán.
Were the pieces on view at artBO political? Not overwhelmingly so—perhaps, in part, because there seemed no shortage of political art in the streets. José Roca, adjunct curator at the Tate Museum in London, surmised that the practices of recent Colombian artists epitomized a “backlash against the aesthetics of violence in the 1990s.”
Roca, in a beard and blazer, and knowing everyone, was fresh from celebrating the launch of a book he’d coauthored on the past decade of Colombian art. He was among the many speakers featured in artBO’s program of lectures, stationed just across from a monstrously tall tornado built of wooden slats by Otoniel Borda Garzón. Borda’s wood whirlwind dominated the main space of Pabellón Artecámara, the curated portion of the fair, which featured thirty-three projects divided into three loosely thematic areas. “I’m very cautious about instrumentalizing art,” said Conrado Uribe, Artecámara’s organizer. “So I didn’t end up using the proposal I had submitted [to curate the space]. I prefer to think of myself as an ethnographer rather than a curator—though of course I am a human being, with preexisting ideas.”
Down at the other end of the hall, sales weren’t particularly fast, but few seemed worried. Carlos Marsano, a collector from Lima, Peru, said he had once been “impulsive,” but was now taking more time before committing to art. In short, no one seemed there to make a quick buck. It was great. There was ample space for works that were modest, emerging, and experimental, rather than big, red, and shiny. The fair even had, refreshingly enough, an educational wing the size of a stadium, where schoolchildren learned about things like form and new media.
Left: Dealer Jacob Karpio and ARCO director Carlos Urroz. Right: Artist Miguel Ángel Rojas and Cartier Foundation curator Leanne Sacramone.
“Fresh ideas” were, in part, what had drawn dealer Renata Bianconi from Italy to participate for the first time. “The art’s not as schematic as in North America,” she said. Her booth was getting a lot of attention for its photographs by Colombian artist Maria Elvira Escallón of trees whose trunks Escallón had carved into colonial-style columns—noninvasively, so the wood would still live on in the forest. Escallón also had a show on view at the university museum downtown that featured a video of dirt being poured into an abandoned hospital. (Count on college students to use the darkened room, with its casual floor seating, as an opportunity to make out.)
According to curator Jaime Ceron Silva, artists escaped to the safety of universities in the 1990s, after art got a bad name when “drug men used [it] as a way to wash their money.” It seemed he was saying that Colombian art was better off, now, for the time it spent incubating in ivory towers. Like everything else, the art scene was “complicated”—the response I received throughout the week to so many questions. Everything was complicated.
Left: Dealers Christopher Paschall and Alberto Magnan. Right: Collector Jorge Di-Terlizzi, curator Julia Diagahovic, collector Adriana Martínez, and dealer Renata Bianconi.
AS WITH ANY OTHER FAIR, the week was filled with side trips to exhibitions, including a show by artist Gabriel de la Mora at NC Arte (a nonprofit space up in the hills) and a group exhibition at Galería Casas Riegner that paid homage to Beatriz González, the auteur of the silhouettes on the cemetery vaults we’d seen earlier. A group rode through the hills to La Candelaria, the old part of Bogotá, where in the midst of brightly painted buildings, a contortionist did push-ups in crow pose on the sidewalk. There, too, was the Banco de la República’s museum, where a new exhibition of contemporary art was being installed, and across the courtyard, another show featured unforgettable colonial-era paintings of nuns, depicted in their final, bloodless states of repose. Rain clouds had been gathering all morning, and in the plaza down the street from the bank, protesters mourning the disappearance and murder of three hundred members of the old Unión Patriótica political party pulled transparent tarps over the folding tables that held photos of their lost ones. It rained off and on nearly all week, but that day the downpour grew fiendish, and the streets of La Candelaria, lacking the sewer system of newer parts of town, had quickly become whitewater rapids.
“This is the gods punishing us for skipping the Botero Museum,” someone said from the back of the van that had come to rescue us from the downpour.
“How much does a Botero even cost nowadays?” said artist Christopher Ho.
Dealer Sebastian Campos laid down the gory figures.
“Too much for me to buy one ironically, is what you’re saying.” said Ho.
Left: Otoniel Borda Garzón's installation at artBO. Right: Critic Silas Martí and collector Alfredo Herzog da Silva.
Campos was the one who noted to me earlier—as we ate arepas at collector Solita Mishaan’s home up in the hills—that Colombian collectors really do seem to mostly buy Colombian art. We all saw four collections in total; each different in flavor but all of them committed to emerging Latin American artists. At Alejandro Castaño’s two-story, unfinished space crammed with artwork, the crowd ate paella indoors and spilled out into the streets.
I was loosely assigned a guide that week: Maria Lucia Buraglia, an art history student, on some days resplendent in a fur-collared coat and fuchsia stockings. She said that often during her childhood she’d been sent to school with a sleeping bag, whenever guerrillas were close to seizing control of the route home. “The reason I want to work in culture is that it’s a way for Colombians to be proud of our country again,” she said. Our van driver had the radio set to a station that played 1980s hits, and “Ghostbusters” was on—Ray Parker Jr. snarling I ain’t afraid o’ no ghost—as we rode past hardware stores and fruit markets. Parker recorded “Ghostbusters” in 1984. That was also the year in Colombia that the government and the FARC reached a ceasefire that lasted a short three years, during which the guerrillas kept their weapons and consolidated forces. That Thursday, nearly two decades later, there was yet another round of negotiations. “It’s complicated,” said Buraglia of the compromises being hashed out. But she also said: “Many people left when things were really bad, and now they’re coming back.”
BLOOD FROM A STONE. A kind, patient stone, but a stone nonetheless. The stone was Don DeLillo, novelist and elder of postmodernism, and the designated bleeder for the evening was Jonathan Franzen, novelist and acolyte of Don DeLillo. Watching Franzen try to draw out DeLillo on the “meaning” of his work on a pre-Sandy night at the New York Public Library, I felt the type of vertigo-by-proxy one feels when reading a particularly unrewarding interview with Bob Dylan, where the questions are longer and more complex than the answers, and the answerer, when answering at all, comes off as the cat who swallowed the canary, delivering each theory-deflating response with the faint smirk that says, “I know that you know that I know . . . ”
The long lines and packed house confirmed DeLillo’s status as a Sphinx-like godhead for fiction writers of Franzen’s age and younger, but several women sitting behind me, most likely writers themselves or employees of DeLillo’s publishing house, cut through the reverent atmosphere before the principals had even taken their seats. As a still of a Salman Rushdie interview from the same venue appeared on the screens bookending the stage, one woman sighed: “Ugh, he’s so self-absorbed.” One of her friends echoed that Franzen, too, was fatally narcissistic (“and it’s always with this victim thing”). A third laid into Michael Chabon (“He’s annoying—so stylized. But have you read his new novel? It’s brilliant, if annoying.”) I started to worry that they were going to train their fire on novelist friends of mine when, thankfully, Paul Holdengraber introduced DeLillo.
A word about author photos: During my lifetime they have mutated from awkward space fillers on dust jackets—with the author, usually not the possessor of Adonis DNA, attempting to bolster his intellectual bona fides with a hopelessly staged hand-on-chin or glasses-in-mouth gesture—to completely fraudulent embellishments of the author’s unremarkable appearance. Franzen’s author photo for the first edition of The Corrections (2001)—Superman disguised as Clark Kent as made over by stylists at GQ—was a bellwether of this trend. DeLillo, to his credit, has used the same author photo for the past thirty years, and it ain’t pretty. It’s a lived-in face, the face of a man who has spent decades marinating in pain. And indeed, that is exactly how he looks in real life.
DeLillo read from his first-ever story collection, The Angel Esmeralda, which collects short work from 1979 through last year. The chosen story for the evening was a science-fiction–flavored piece from 1983 about men on an orbiting wartime spaceship, practicing maneuvers and trying to stay sane. Its title is “Human Moments in World War III.” DeLillo hails from the Bronx, and therefore pronounces “human” as “yooman.” Recurring references to “human moments” throughout the story were charged with unintentional yoomor because of this. When DeLillo finished, Franzen entered from stage right, bearing a briefcase from which he removed pages of questions. He said that DeLillo meant more to him than any other writer. DeLillo’s eyes widened.
An early exchange was typical of the entire interview. Franzen asked how important meaning was to DeLillo’s writing. “Not much,” the older writer deadpanned. “I’m a writer of sentences… I don’t know where meaning comes from.” Franzen was visibly chastened by this anti-response. Nevertheless, he doubled down. “Your language seems Catholic, death-haunted. Do you see yourself as a mystical writer?” DeLillo: “There is a mystical element in my work.” (Franzen added that he thought of himself as a mystical writer; I have no idea what he’s talking about.) Franzen offered that art galleries and movie theaters are “dangerous spaces” in DeLillo’s work. DeLillo dodged this, but allowed that he liked art because “it’s often beyond verbal analysis.” (DeLillo readers know that he’s actually a nuanced and effective “art critic” in his fiction.)
DeLillo was most expansive about his early years, when he was trying to become a writer. He lived near the Queens-Midtown Tunnel in a sixty-dollar-a-month apartment. He told acquaintances that he lived “in the tunnel.” “It wasn’t Paris in the 1920s, but I was happy.” He watched French New Wave and other 1960s European art-house films, realizing that movies could be as deep as novels. On Fire Island (“forty miles of existentialism off the coast of Long Island”), he met Nelson Algren, who became his “beach buddy,” offering to read his fledgling stories and counseling him that the writer’s life was a difficult one. Algren often groused about being literally shortchanged by Otto Preminger’s adaptation of The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), but DeLillo appreciated the older man’s guidance and company. Algren had told him always to take the flyers offered by touts on city streets, as they could go home earlier if one did so. DeLillo said he followed this dictum for years. Franzen, a bit eagerly, said that he did it too. “Good,” DeLillo replied, “because I’ve stopped.”
In the audience Q&A segment, an earnest young writer asked DeLillo to elaborate on his recurring theme (most explicitly treated in Mao II) that terrorism had replaced writing as the primary means of cultural communication. DeLillo feinted, saying those were the characters’ thoughts, not his. “Really?” Franzen interjected, adding that DeLillo’s demurral reminded him of an interview with Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, where the songwriter corrected his interlocutor on the line “Attention and fame’s a career,” saying that the repeated “career” was actually “Korea” (pace Franzen and Malkmus, but it’s both, one word transforming into the other—oblique wordplay typical of the singer). Someone else asked about the future of the novel. DeLillo, pointing to Franzen, said, “He’s the future of the novel.” Maybe so, but if he wants to have a long Korea as such, he’ll have to stop worrying so much about meaning and learn to be coy when interviewed. I don’t often agree with literary critic James Wood, but his charge that Franzen and some of his literary peers are “overexplainers” seems apt here. It’s hard to continue the striptease when you’re already naked. We learned a few things about DeLillo in this conversation, but far more about Franzen. Perhaps the opposite was intended.
Left: Happy Gorilla Dance Company's Exit Strategies. Right: Mette Edvarsen's Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine. (Photo: Sveinn Fannar Jóhannsson)
AUDIENCE MEMBERS napping on bunk beds; interpretive dancers and musicians in fanciful costumes and face paint; a relentlessly humble anti-capitalist affair as would warm Dave Hickey’s heart. You might guess this was some serious baby boomer performance art happening at Theater for the New City. But no: agit-prop hippie art is alive and well in Bergen, Norway, at BIT Teatergarasjen’s Oktoberdans.
Over the past few years on the festival circuit, talk of European belt-tightening and the perpetual American funding crisis has become perennial background static. But Norway has remained insulated from cultural budget cuts, leading to some head-scratching from audience members leaving the empty storefront where Happy Gorilla Dance Company (which counts among its members Jørgen Knudsen, from the influential, now disbanded Bergen collective Baktruppen) staged its Exit Strategies.
“It sounds like they’re trying to save the planet, from the richest fucking country on earth,” one artist said, laughing. “They probably got $100,000 to make this shit.” The idea of an “Austerity Chorus” in Bergen is an easy target. And yet I was kind of glad for the hokey idiosyncrasies of Happy Gorilla—there are worse things than being told mid-performance, especially in the midst of an international festival, that audience naps are welcome.
Happy Gorilla was in fact offering power naps during the day. I didn’t catch one of those, but found another way of recharging during Time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine, Mette Edvardsen’s marvelously quiet takeover of the Bergen library. Kristien Van den Brande’s clear, alive eyes were deliciously close to mine, as she spent a half hour reciting Bartelby, the Scrivener from memory in this intimate work, in which, as Melville wrote, “privacy and society were conjoined.”
For Van den Brande, the experience is wildly different each time; “It is you who is reading me.” Privacy and society conjoined: this is the great promise of art, and perhaps especially live art. But how often does it work, especially at festivals, which are famously good at jamming up the circuitry? All of these encounters—satisfying, confusing, drunken, sublime—swirling around in a chaotic jumble. As festivals go, Oktoberdans is gently paced, balanced between formal presentations, installations, and site-specific events, including works by the choreographer Hooman Sharifi; the performance artist Steven Cohen; and the trio of theater and video artist Iver Findlay, choreographer Marit Sandsmark and musician Pal Asle Pettersen. Nestled between foothills and fjords, Bergen is extravagantly lovely, with a rather low-key personality. (I spent an extraordinarily long time at a bar one night listening to Oktoberdans attendees discuss boats and cabins, mentally substituting “real estate” and “work” in the hopes of staying with the conversation.)
“We can’t complain, not one bit,” said BIT Teatergarasjen’s adventuresome artistic director Sven Birkeland (though he did, after a glass or two of wine, tick off “issues in the honeypot.”). “Everyone else in Europe is cut like hell.” Birkeland has had his own difficulties in recent years: the loss of BIT Teatergarasjen’s space, putting the organization in limbo as they wait for a new home. Meanwhile, festivals like Oktoberdans are spread out around the city.
Sharifi’s Then Love Was Found and Set the World on Fire unfolded in the opulent Logen Teater, a stark contrast to the Iranian uprisings of a few years ago that prompted the work. “Half of the world is on fire,” the choreographer said when I ran into him at a coffee shop the next day. “And it will become more and more so.”
Cohen’s Title Withheld for Legal and Ethical Reasons, in which he punishes his near-naked body in an effort at communication, flanked by images of the Holocaust and bestiality and joined by a parade of lit up rats, took place, fittingly, in a former meat-processing plant. (The New York and Brussels-based theater artist and comedian Adrian Minkowicz, for one, wasn’t convinced by Cohen’s brand of disturbing manipulation: “It tries to be provocative—but in the end, he didn’t kill any of the mice. I’m sorry, but one of them needed to be smashed.”)
Findlay, Sandsmark, and Pettersen might have gotten the most awkward space for “a pretty/shitty study,” an in-progress work exploring themes around nostalgia. They were situated on a street undergoing heavy construction, in a tiny, crowded gallery that doubled as a spray paint store; teenage boys periodically edged into the room, staring warily at Sandsmark as she slid her body through fluid yet strangely robotic adjustments, caught up in the delicate web of a video and soundscore. It was all terrifically disorienting, and also weirdly calming. Privacy and society conjoined, indeed.
THE NEW YORK art business has been a speeding train for so long that it began to seem as if nothing could stop it, or even slow it down. Then came Hurricane Sandy.
Sandy did it. Knocked out all the power in Lower Manhattan, where most galleries are concentrated. Those in Chelsea took the biggest hit. They didn’t just lose power. Some dealers may lose their galleries as well.
It started on the night of Monday, October 29. At the peak of the storm, the Hudson River breached its banks and surged through Chelsea Piers, sending an extraordinarily powerful, twelve-foot flume of water down every street between West Nineteenth and West Twenty-Seventh. Nearly every gallery in the flood zone between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues took on water—even those that had taken every precaution to prevent that from happening. Suddenly the coveted spaces were no longer those with street-level access but the ones hidden on floors well above it. Yet even galleries with exhibition spaces several steps up got wet. As one dealer told me, “Nothing could have stopped that water.”
Basements were inundated and any gallery with back-room or belowground storage had reason to worry about its art. But first, each had to pump out the water and see what was left. If the art world generally behaves as the exception to every rule, it could not isolate itself from the mayhem this time. Yet in many ways Chelsea got off easy. No lives were lost. Property may be damaged, but it’s not gone—not the way homes and businesses in coastal areas of Brooklyn, Long Island, and much of New Jersey are.
I happen to live in Chelsea, which went dark at about 8:30 PM on Monday and has been out of power, heat, and, in many buildings, also running water ever since. With no traffic signals or street lights operating, going out after dusk has been an eerie experience, but the darkness masked the devastation facing dealers I saw during a tour of Chelsea on Wednesday morning.
Marianne Boesky looked shell-shocked when I stepped into her darkened West Twenty-Fourth Street gallery. The day before, staff had used brooms to push out water that had not already receded—a common sight all over the neighborhood. Now they were beginning to uncrate every artwork in Boesky’s ground-floor storage and move it into dry space for inspection.
At Gladstone Gallery, employees were also moving crated works around a space where the water left evidence of its fleeting residency at about three, maybe four feet from the ground. The story was the same next door at Metro Pictures, where Cindy Sherman was shoring up the confidence of Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring, her primary dealers throughout her career, and negotiating with them for the last available Manhattan hotel room (at the Carlyle) where they could take hot baths. While director Tom Herman manned a push broom to sweep out what water remained, the dealers gingerly approached their inventory to check for damage.
Outside, dealer Jay Gorney seemed almost sheepish about Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery’s good fortune to be loading-dock level above the street. At Andrea Rosen, gallery staff were carefully, anxiously, laying out fragile works from a group show that had been scheduled to open this week—a scene I would see repeated everywhere. (All galleries in Chelsea, SoHo, and the Lower East Side are closed either until further notice or until power returns.) On the wall at Rosen’s entrance, I couldn’t hold back a bleak laugh when I spotted the horribly prescient title of the Andrea Zittel show that just ended there: “Fluid Panel State.”
Left: CRG Gallery. Right: Anton Kern Gallery.
Yet Rosen was among those best prepared for such a disaster. Eight years ago, both her gallery and her neighbor Luhring Augustine were flooded, which prompted the dealers to put a five-thousand-gallon tank beneath the gallery and a drain in front of it. It turned out to be small fish for a Godzilla like Sandy. But Brent Sikkema and Michael Jenkins found a way to outwit the flood, at least well enough to spare their current show of Mark Bradford paintings if not the walls beneath them. According to Lawrence Luhring, rather than de-install or raise the large works before the storm, Sikkema and Jenkins put them in plastic diapers strong enough to stave off the water. Clever! Or maybe just lucky.
Luhring himself didn’t have to worry: His gallery’s storage was in its new warehouse in Bushwick. Fortune was with Matthew Marks as well. Though his large gallery on West Twenty-Second took the wave, it didn’t hurt the giant steel Tony Smith sculpture inside it. When I went by, workers had already removed the waterlogged parts of the walls in his gallery next door, and were starting to replace them—something every gallery that flooded will have to do. “Wallboard soaks up water like a sponge,” one man said. “You have to cut it out or risk mildew and mold.”
On West Twenty-First, hazmat-suited workers were cleaning up the awful mess at 303 Gallery. (“We need fans and heaters and dehumidifiers!!” dealer Lisa Spellman wrote on her Facebook page Thursday.) Metal plates from a Carl Andre installation at Paula Cooper were drying—and oxidizing—in the air on West Twenty-First Street, where workers at Gagosian were just beginning to pump out the water still on the floor surrounding a partly installed Henry Moore show. It looked positively apocalyptic from the street. Outside David Zwirner, where the water level inside had reached five feet, the street was piled high with overstuffed garbage bags of detritus and broken office furniture. One steel gate was completely warped by the wave. “Most of the art was elsewhere and didn’t get hit,” Zwirner said, anxiously shooing away reporters. “But the gallery did.”
Many people will find it hard to sympathize with the dealers who have profited handsomely in recent years, dealers who can afford to rebuild quickly and move artworks into new storage facilities. For smaller operations, like those of Nicole Klagsbrun, CRG, Casey Kaplan, and Andrew Kreps, the prognosis is much grimmer. Klagsbrun was on the phone to her lawyer when I saw her. At CRG, workers who had moved its current show of Brian Tolle works to tabletops—only to see the tables later floating like tub toys in a bath—were staring at the large bite that the water had taken out of one wall. And Kaplan was dreading what was to come.
His usually pristine gallery was puddled, stained, and begging for TLC. Though many dealers could not even guess when they might reopen for business, Kaplan said that reconstruction and conservation of the works in the gallery could take till January. “How can I afford to pay my rent, my staff, the conservators, and store the art while the gallery isn’t generating any income?” he asked. That is a question many others will have to face. “We need a lot of help,” Kaplan said. “We need patience. And we need our landlords to support us with a couple of months free rent.”
New York landlords are not known for generosity, so this seems doubtful, and Kaplan was clearly upset. What about FEMA? President Obama has said that the federal government will do everything it can to help small business. Will it come through for galleries? It’s too early to tell. Though art can be insured, as far as I know, New York galleries (at least up till now) have not carried flood insurance.
“Maybe the idea of Chelsea isn’t so good after all,” said Stefania Bortolami, whose gallery was drenched by the flood. She had just taken delivery of a generator supplied by a friend of Anton Kern’s, who drove a pair of them from upstate for each of them. “I paid $2,000,” she said, “and it did not come with oil or gas.” (Without power, nearby gas pumps were not operational.)
Kern’s staff had only begun to dry out the works on paper from his flat files, which looked remarkably unscathed. Like everyone else’s, his computers and servers were toast, and his office had been soaked. Even so, he was planning to reopen next week. “Fuck Sandy,” he said. “It’s imperative to get this back—that’s why we’re all working so hard. The level of commitment has been extraordinary.”
Left: Workers check the condition of every artwork in Jack Shainman gallery. Right: Casey Kaplan Gallery.
At Jack Shainman, director Tamsen Greene brought up another issue: collectors. Many galleries have works on hand that have been sold but not yet shipped. Even though dealers are taking every step possible to repair, conserve, and protect artworks while also repairing their galleries and systems, their efforts may not satisfy all collectors—or artists.
Some artists stepped right to the plate. John Bock was helping at Kern; Nathan Carter at Kaplan, Luc Tuymans at Zwirner. There was also Matthew Higgs lending a hand at Andrew Kreps, whose hallway was piled high with materials dredged up from the basement. Though faces were drawn and showing signs of fatigue, everyone in sight was doing their best to cope: Carroll Dunham was on the phone to Barbara Gladstone, Shannon Ebner to Janine Foeller at flooded Wallspace, which is closest to the river—and which was first on the phone to FEMA.
The havoc wreaked by the storm will no doubt result in big changes to the city’s nineteenth-century infrastructure. Storms, after all, are only growing more intense. So when next week comes and electricity returns, the landscape of Chelsea—particularly the psychological turf—may start to look different. But only if its businesspeople also start to make changes to attitude and behavior, along with everybody else.
No one is invincible. Dealers will have to secure storage on higher ground and sandbag their galleries in advance of threatening weather as if fortifying bunkers, or artists and collectors won’t trust them. It’s hard to prepare for such an angry and unpredictable force as Hurricane Sandy—even for veterans of 9/11 who were ready for everything. Yet some remain optimistic. As Andrea Rosen’s artist liaison Rachel Furnari put it, surveying the unsullied works on the floor, “It just goes to show how durable art really is.” So is the human spirit, where it all begins.