A Kiewit trailer at the I-405 expansion. (All photos: Travis Diehl)
IF YOU’RE OVER 8' 6" TALL OR 40' LONG, roll, require a permit to move, and are habitable but not a dwelling, you are known to the State of California as a “commercial modular”—an office trailer.
“Thanks for coming,” said Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, taking the mic of the bus PA. “I know the traffic was rough out there.”
Sure was. I’d covered the ten miles from Chinatown to Culver City in just over an hour. Upstream on I-405, an overturned diesel tanker had blocked three lanes and an off-ramp. Well. I should have taken the Expo Line, Los Angeles Metro’s newest light rail extension, whose “stub” terminates a couple blocks from Parcel B, future site of 115,000 square feet of retail space, now a parking lot in limbo, and until mid-June the home of a 720-square-foot mobile gallery. There, behind an unassuming faux-wood finish, was On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment. The modest building housed—and was itself—an official contribution to the Getty Museum’s “Pacific Standard Time: Modern Architecture in L.A.” Inside, several dozen photos of said trailers, arranged in a grid that covers one wall, were nothing so “arch” as a Becher typology. They’re simply, functionally, proof that these unsung structures exist. There was also a water cooler, folding tables, requisite OSHA posters, hard hats on pegs—real blue-collar stuff. I watched other visitors rubbing the CLUI trailer’s siding, smelling it, taking photos. Gleaming just outside on the blacktop was the luxurious touring coach that was to carry the thirty of us on our experimental journey through—not LA’s by now nostalgic architecture of the future but, as Coolidge put it, “LA as it’s building itself at this moment.” There on the bleeding edge, you can be sure, there will be trailers.
Left: At the On-Site Office Trailers: Invisible Architecture of the Urban Environment exhibition center. Right: First sighting, a trailer at the Expo Line.
Moments after we were underway, our first sighting: A trailer darted out from the concrete abutments of the Expo Line stub. It was a modest gray break room, and a good start. We meandered through Culver City neighborhoods, cameras trained out the windows of our outsize bus. “So we’ll follow a little bit of the [future] Expo line,” said guide Coolidge, “and then we’re going to sit in traffic on our way to the 405.” Well of course we are. But “perhaps at this elevated level we’ll enjoy the construction projects as we slowly pass through them on our elevated gallery platform here…”
We were on some kind of frontage road, with a good view of the 405 expansion below. Deep trenches and retaining walls unspooled between us and the freeway. We passed the trappings of a Metro press conference held earlier that morning to discuss another yearlong construction delay. Something like twenty utility lines must be moved over a few feet to accommodate those new HOV lanes. Meanwhile, some 300,000 cars a day flow through the Sepulveda Pass. Ahead of us was the so-called Carmageddon Bridge. Up on a ridge the white travertine of the Getty floated by.
Mike, our bus driver, made a startling hairpin turn into—“now you can see on the left this complex of office trailers, the largest complex for Kiewit in this 405-widening experience”—a couple dozen raised dirt brown buildings, joined together, ringed with wooden decks. Near a pair of picnic tables burned with the 405 expansion’s logo (“Design It / Build It / 405”), we were met by Kiewit Corporation community liaison Natasha Jones. She talked trailer for a bit—but folks soon latched onto a particular detail of Kiewit’s project: the reinforced embankments above the road cuts, carved with a textured, rocklike appearance. The work of a subcontractor.
“He’s known for those walls,” said Jones. It was fascinating—a crude art—an industrial muralism discovered here in the liminal world of office trailers. But this was a crowd of artists and architects, after all. Back on the bus, I watched as two seats in front of me a couple CalArts folks connected—an alum from the 1970s and a current art faculty. Here in sandy Southern California, Coolidge mused, “We have to manufacture our stratigraphic views.”
As we slipped south on the 405, Coolidge briefed us on oil in the LA basin. The few active operations here, stretching up to a mile under the city from their wellheads, extract a goopy crude used not for gasoline but for things like asphalt. “The Getty Center of course was constructed with a legacy of oil money. Getty was John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world in the 1950s. The Playa Vista, where we’re going, is a site that was owned by the richest man in the ’60s: Howard Hughes.” The big bus hung a left at a Home Depot and into the redeveloped Hughes aircraft plant—whose present tenants include YouTube, Whole Foods, and Gehry Partners—and deeper into the completed residential phase, where the sales office, among other things, is a trailer.
“You can see that Playa Vista is a very sculpted, modern, contemporary, kind of dense environment,” said Coolidge. “It almost feels like we’re driving into an architectural rendering.” We were met by Derek Fraychineaud, the developer’s vice president of residential construction—a fast-talking, omnivorous industry man who says things like “We have a senior affordable apartment product” and “seven-eight chef-driven restaurants.” A guy in a straw fedora shook his head. Someone asked if one of the bleary lo-res printouts lining the walls of the trailer was the Gehry building. “Frank Gehry is not doing anything here.”
The VP joined us on the bus for a lap of the undeveloped grounds—a huge flattened pit where millions of cubic feet of dirt have been moved and removed to transform an estuary into real estate. Trailers, brown gray and blue, dotted the plain.
Everyone’s spirits were much improved after we ate our bag lunches on the lawn by the Playa Vista band shell. Nearby they were bulldozing and replanting some trees that didn’t take. Soon we were rolling past the Jefferson Boulevard residential frontage for the fourth time, heading through the afternoon haze toward the coast and to Los Angeles International Airport where the Tom Bradley International Terminal modernization is nearing completion. Looping the back way into LAX, we discovered an outlying colony of trailers—complete with city grid, named streets, utilities, and mailing addresses. Painted red arcs mark the paths of opening doors in gray outdoor hallways. Witness: the barbecue area. Witness: another conference room. There must be fifty trailers there, all rentals, wired together into a humming nerve center. Climbing the stairs to the top of a parking deck, witness: a trailer on the roof. “It may not be as sexy as what you see behind you,” said Albert Rodriguez, our LAX PR specialist, gesturing toward the renovated Bradley. “But it’s very important.”
One safety-vested contractor disagreed: “Depends on what you think is sexy.”
Now, lazily touring homeward via surface streets, everything started to look like a trailer. Sure—and maybe most everything we passed on the way back to Parcel B was at some point just a twinkle in a contractor’s eye as she manned a desk in an on-site mobile office. Adaptable, portable, ubiquitous, the trailer is the gateway to another world of buildings in potentia—from the lowliest light rail expansion to billion-dollar airport terminals, from schools and fire stations to the Getty’s palatial campus. They’re everywhere, and now you will see them everywhere. Like CLUI itself, the on-site office trailer is a bureaucratic container of limitless architecture.
A final turn or two around the Baldwin Hills oil field, past old back lots along an overgrown streambank where Tarzan was filmed, on one corner we saw Eric Owen Moss’s Samitaur Tower. The quirky, rusted, scrim-skinned building is one of three used by the Getty in its PST promotions, and is presently unsafe to climb.
“The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.” I think John Paul Getty said that.
Left: Eric Owen Moss’s Samitaur Tower from the bus. Right: CLUI sound recordist Eric Potter, program manager Ben Loescher, corpswoman Marina Pinsky, founder-director Matthew Coolidge, and program manager Aurora Tang.
SOMEWHERE ON THE ARABIAN PENINSULA in the late seventh century, a quixotic young poet named Qays fell totally and hopelessly for a mercurial beauty named Layla. He composed long, lush, embarrassingly honest poems in her honor, turning up every day to profess his love. When Layla’s father found out, he was livid. A lowly poet for his daughter? Never. He married her off and sent her away, at which point Qays went crazy. In one version of the story, they were simply the sweetest of childhood friends. In another version, Layla was smitten but passive, and so she died of a broken heart, leaving Qays to wander the desert until he collapsed, lifeless, on her grave. In another still, Layla was passionate but royally pissed off that Qays had played her father and her family so wrong. Qays challenged her husband to a duel, and lost. At the precise moment her captor’s sword pierced her lover’s heart, Layla perished. All that remained were those mad poems and a spate of exchanged letters, an accidental archive of unhinged emotions, which were repeated like rumors and eventually set down in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hindi, Azerbaijani, and more.
In Arabic, Majnun Layla means “to be possessed by madness for Layla.” As a story, it is the basis of some of the oldest romantic epics in the world, an off-kilter account of reckless, blindsiding love that reads like the Romeo and Juliet of the region, except that it predates Shakespeare by a good thousand years. During a dynamic Saturday morning lecture in late May, the Lebanese writer and literary scholar Tarek El-Ariss traced a lively history of Majnun Layla up through the present day. Delving into the early videos of Akram Zaatari, the plays of Ziad Rahbani, and the novels of Hoda Barakat and Hanan al-Shaykh, Ariss characterized the story’s madness as a site of transgression and subversion that had been radically reconfigured in contemporary art as an explosive space for the articulation of sexual desires, actions, and identities, which, across much of the Arab world, fall outside the rules of society and the laws of the state.
Drawn from a chapter in his book The Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, Ariss’s talk came at the tail end of Home Works 6, an eruption of exhibitions, performances, screenings, and debates that carried on for fifteen days last month in Beirut. Established eleven years ago as the follow-up to a series of public space projects organized by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan, Home Works happens every few years, or whenever Lebanon’s turbulent political situation allows. In energy and magnetism, it is like a biennial, except that it genuinely responds to the needs of the city and creates an incredible sense of urgency around the issues at stake among the actors in Beirut’s art scene.
Atypical in its bookishness, Ariss’s lecture was nonetheless characteristic of Home Works 6 as a whole, a fine example of a notably cerebral art scene (think Walid Raad, think Jalal Toufic) allowing for some emotional leakage while turning its attention to issues of difference and desire that have long been locally neglected. The decision to revisit recent histories of cultural production in Beirut, which remain far from settled in the narrative badlands of Lebanon’s long civil war, was also emblematic, and new. This time around, Home Works was erudite, intense, affective, and exhausting. The schedule may have seemed random at a glance, but it was deceptively well structured as it worked its way through a constellation of unstated but beautifully arranged ideas related to trial, reenactment, transitional justice, crimes of passion, the body, gender trouble, love in abundance, and the fast dwindling efficacy (or devastating collapse) of intellectual and ideological elites.
Opening night performance of Joe Namy's Automobile.
“Part of the concept was to the make residents of Beirut feel foreign in their own city.” That was Matthias Lilienthal at the start of the whole shebang. A theater director and dramaturge, Lilienthal is currently running year two of Ashkal Alwan’s experimental art school, the Home Workspace Program. As part of the curriculum, fourteen students created new works for Lilienthal’s X-Apartments project, which involves making art in private homes, usually in dicey neighborhoods, which audiences are invited to see, two by two, as part of a walking tour (each piece has a fixed duration of eight minutes). Previously realized in cities such as Berlin, Istanbul, and Săo Paulo, the Beirut version took up residence in Bourj Hammoud, the city’s densely packed Armenian district, and Khandaq al-Ghamiq (“deep trench” in Arabic), the heartland of Hezbollah’s main rival (and occasional ally), Harakat Amal.
X-Apartments rustled up controversy as soon as it began on May 12. The students had been hating the idea for months, I later discovered, when Lilienthal let me sit in on a meeting with them, where they mulled over what had worked and what hadn’t. (By that point they were all willing to accept that it had been a good challenge and had pushed them places they wouldn’t have otherwise gone.) Many of the people who took the tours, and even more who didn’t, used terms like “poverty tourism,” “exploitation,” “voyeurism,” and “mean-spirited manipulation” to describe what they saw. Lilienthal, obviously, had a different take.
“The art scene here has been very concerned with the critique of images,” he said. “X-Apartments is totally the opposite, because the images are very messy. It’s the opposite of the art practice that is happening in Beirut. It’s the opposite of Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari, and Rabih Mroué. I wanted to introduce other views on art practice.” In doing so, his students not only discovered a cast of endlessly fascinating characters; they also brushed up against a hidden edifice of violence, misogyny, and racism. In Khandaq al-Ghamiq, Raed Motor pulled viewers through a haunting evocation of domestic violence. In Bourj Hammoud, Liane al-Ghusain and Stefan Tarnowski explored the dangers of mythologizing machismo. Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, meanwhile, took the news of a recent police raid on a gay cinema in the neighborhood and turned it into a defiant tribute to queer film.
Left: Artist Kader Attia with Beirut Art Center director Sandra Dagher. Right: Novelist and playwright Hoda Barakat 1.
On May 14, Christine Tohme, Ashkal Alwan’s indefatigable director, marked the launch of Home Works 6 with a raucous block party, featuring a performance by the artist Joe Namy and a concert (pushed inside, due to a flash of rain) featuring the bombastic Egyptian mahraganat of musicians Sadat El 3alamy and Amr 7a7a. On May 17, curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh opened a terrific, untitled exhibition, which marshaled the talents of artists such as Raad, Ali Cherri, Cao Fei, Iman Issa, Basim Magdy, Wael Shawky, Song Ta, and Wang Ningde to capture the mood and circumstance of three historical shows—the first Arab Art Biennial, held in Baghdad in 1974; the inaugural Alexandria Biennale, staged in Egypt’s second largest city in 1955; and “China/Avant-Garde,” an exhibition at Beijing’s National Gallery that was shut down by the authorities on the day it opened in 1989. Conceived as a series of reenactments, it was the first time curatorial thought had been so vividly woven into a Home Works exhibition.
“The art scene in Beirut has been very charged with the archive, with work on the civil war,” said Fetouh. “This exhibition proposes another position absolutely. There isn’t a single reference to the civil war. This is a statement. Because I think the art scene here is changing. I wanted people to think about art. I wanted to create a new geography. I wanted people to think about politics in a different way. I wanted to open Home Works in a different direction.” After seeing the show, one artist told me: “Home Works is about urgency again, about the need for doing things now, about artists getting out of their comfort zones.”
During the last edition, in 2010, there was a lurking suspicion that the forum had been hijacked by the international art world. The art scene in Beirut was ascendant then, there was suddenly a market to contend with, and so the event became an occasion for doing business. The level of discourse, meanwhile, felt flat and generic. This time around, the lineup of contributors and guests was no less international, but their engagement was somehow more easygoing, sensitive, and informed. The crowd of visitors swelled and settled. People dropped into town casually and fell into the rhythm of the event, including Art Dubai’s Antonia Carver, Kasia Kedszisz from Tate Modern, Eungie Joo, Okwui Enwezor, Maria Lind, the Stedelijk Museum’s Jelle Bouwhuis, Mai Abu ElDahab, Peter Eleey from MoMA PS1, Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi and Judith Greer of the Sharjah Art Foundation, dealer Imane Farčs from Paris, and curator Aleya Hamza, who, in September, is opening a new gallery in Cairo called Gypsum.
Left: Curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh. Right: Artist and researcher Catarina Simao.
And so, in and around dance pieces by Meg Stuart and Boris Charmatz, nocturnal walking tours with the writer Ghalya Saadawi, and a charmed performance by Lara Khaldi and Yazan Khalili grafting love letters onto an ill-fated political union, Home Works 6 raced through what seemed like some of the most complicated conflicts on earth: Romania (Milo Rau’s film The Last Days of the Ceausescus), Indonesia (Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing), Mozambique (Catarina Simăo’s incredible archival footage of the revolutionary leader Samora Machel interrogating traitors), Iraq, Algeria, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and everywhere, always, Palestine (particularly crushing in Mahdi Fleifel’s cinematic portrait of a young man’s ruin in the Ain al-Helweh refugee camp).
Out in the world, the Syrian civil war continued to bleed into Lebanon from the north, east, and within. By the time Home Works 6 ended, rockets were falling on the southern suburbs of Beirut. Earlier on, Rania Stephan debuted a riveting video on the exiled Syrian dissident Samar Yazbek, who spoke of “a hurricane of atrocity and violence, a programmed, intellectual strategy of destruction by a gang, a family, and a military mafia protecting its interests and investments. I want to tell you something,” she added. “The astounding thing about the Syrian revolution is that it is a rural revolution of marginalized people who said ‘No’ to slavery. They are more honorable and noble than the elite. They are artists in their essence. The Syrian people are not just making their revolution. They are writing an epic.”
If that weren’t tragedy enough, Home Works drew to a close on May 26 with a performance by Rabih Mroué, possibly his best to date, which takes up the story of his brother, Yasser, who was shot in the head by a sniper on the day of their grandfather’s assassination. (Yasser survived, but the right side of his body was paralyzed.) Illuminating the terrible damage done to a society, a culture, and a cause by targeting intellectuals and killing ideas, Mroué’s piece raises some of the same difficult questions—and plumbs some of the same emotional depths—as Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater. As Mroué bounded onstage at the end to kneel at his brother’s side and strum his guitar, the lasting image was of a love certainly different, but just as fierce, and just as shattering, as the one that runs through the history of Majnun Layla.
Left: Artist Ahmet Ögüt with Rijin Sahakian of Echo for Contemporary Iraqi Art. Right: Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.
Left: Annette Schönholzer, Art Basel director of new initiatives. Right: Artist Eli Hansen. (Except where noted, all photos: Allese Thomson)
WOULD YOU LIKE A MOUSTACHE OR A PAIR OF RED LIPS? Or perhaps a sequined feathered mask? If you were lucky enough to have pushed past the velvet rope at the Superkaputt/Toiletpaper party on Friday night, the choice was yours. There, attendants waited with cosmetics, streamlining partygoers into a single, spirited, and (mostly) anonymous visage. Hosted by the Beyeler Foundation to toast its installation of all five of Maurizio Cattelan’s beheaded, taxidermied horses, the party took place in the warehousesque bar Hinterhof, which was convincingly dressed up by art berlin contemporary director Maike Cruse to play the part of hedonistic nightclub. Organized, megaclub style, into theme areas (the “Love Room,” the “Mini Club,” etc.), the party’s meticulous decoration willed ambience into apparition.
“Do you remember when it was just the Kunsthalle?” asked one wistful collector standing atop the “tropical” rooftop bar.
“And then there was that weird little pop-up dance party that would happen on a boat?” chimed another with a smile.
“Le Baron,” marveled the collector. “Now Das Institut!”
Left: The Toiletpaper party. Right: New Jerseyy's Emanuel Rossetti, Annina Troesch, Tobias Madison, Daniel Baumann, Jan Vorisek, Mathis Altmann, Dan DeNorch aka DJ Percy Anina Trösch, and Dan Solbach.
Party as proxy: Constructing an atmosphere of absorbing frivolity—especially to satisfy nostalgia for a more organic sort—is no easy task, but it’s one the fair has down pat. Some whisper that Marc Spiegler’s Basel has become a well-oiled bureaucratic ship—as if that were a bad thing, this inevitable corporatization that comes when some 86,000 people start descending on your industry show. In the era of the franchise fair, serendipity cannot be left to chance.
When things don’t go quite according to plan, the stakes are high. In a stunning example of cognitive dissonance, artist Tadashi Kawamata erected Favela Café, a set of eateries outside the lavishly refurbished Herzog & de Meuron convention center intended to evoke impoverished shantytowns in Latin America. There, Baselites were invited to sip a cappuccino in the “slums” while deciding whether or not to buy a Picasso. Confounded by the installation, a hundred or so activist-entrepreneurs built their own pop-up slum next to Kawamata’s, which Friday became the site of general revelry, dancing, drums, and some Occupy-style protests—until riot police stormed the space, belting participants with rubber bullets and point-blank pepper spray, according to the YouTube video.
Police raid the Messeplatz outside the 44th Art Basel.
Linking the incident solely to the cogs and wheels of Art Basel is surely inequitable. But what is the effect of all this machinery on the vital human element? “It’s a model that just isn’t working,” argued dealer Elizabeth Dee in a panel discussion, “The Place of Midlevel Galleries in the Age of the Mega-Gallery,” part of Art Basel’s Salon program. She noted a crucial if slightly dodgy distinction contributing to the rise of the fair as franchise: “There is a difference between the ‘dealer’ and the ‘gallerist.’ A dealer matches an autonomous work of art with an individual or institution. A gallerist is in the business of discovering, developing, and introducing art that would not be known otherwise.”
There seems to be a paradoxical angst toward the fair emerging from those constitutive to its existence. Yet somehow, this very angst is probably integral in its own way. At his Tuesday night dinner at Das Schiff, Emmanuel Perrotin was holding forth about the imminent opening of his New York space, which secures his foothold on three continents, when Philippe Ségalot bent his head into a conversation about the fair’s evolution from land of gallerist to turf of dealer.
Left: Dealers Andrea Merkx and Gabrielle Giattino. Right: Dealer Michal Kaczynski of Raster Gallery.
“Collecting should be about relationships; there used to be a romance to it,” he mused, adding that he planned to leave the next day, before the fair opened to the second round of VIPs. In the background, Tolga Albayrak and Samuel Boutruche were gearing up for Le Baron, which first took place on Das Schiff some five years ago after Perrotin asked the Parisian nightclub owners to host a party following his dinner.
“It was epic,” Albayrak smiled. “Now, a reputation has formed. It’s an annual official rendezvous.”
On the other side of town:
“We basically throw the dinner for people who aren’t invited to dinner or just don’t care about dinner,” said Carnegie International cocurator Daniel Baumann outside of New Jerseyy, a launching pad for young artists (Ida Ekblad, Kerstin Brätsch, and Nikolas Gambaroff, among others). The opening of the show, titled “< life > all-downhill-from-hear [dot] tumblr [dot] com < /life >,” attracted a crowd of three hundred Reena Spaulings–ish spelunkers, as well as Art Cologne director Daniel Hug, collector Andre Sakhai, advisor Eleanor Cayre, and Aspen Art Museum curator Jacob Proctor. Artist Nicolas Ceccaldi lingered near his work, noting that his printed canvases are “impregnated with the morbid mood of Tumblr.” He paused. “I think so many people today are predisposed to hanging onto the past. It’s very dark, you know, clinging to the past. It’s like speaking about life as if it were dead.”
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ACCUSED OF OR COMMITTED GENOCIDE?
HAVE YOU ENGAGED IN ANY OTHER ACTIVITIES THAT MIGHT INDICATE THAT YOU MAY NOT BE CONSIDERED A PERSON OF GOOD CHARACTER?
ARE YOU AND YOUR PARTNER LIVING IN A GENUINE AND STABLE RELATIONSHIP?
Welcome to Liste, the “young art fair.” At Istanbul-based Galeri NON, the latter two phrases were printed on large vinyl sheets by artist Meriç Algün Ringborg, while the first was included in a hand-bound encyclopedia of visa applications from around the world.
“Analog is everywhere,” said Joel Mesler of Untitled as we wandered around the fair. “So much so that there is this ridiculous tension. It’s as if any second everything will break into motion.”
Consider Maria Adele Del Vecchio at Supportico Lopez, who took the library as subject, photographing volumes to create emotional landscapes of a medium in attenuation. And then there’s Vivienne Griffin, an artist who debuted at Bureau earlier this year, whose exceptional works distill narratives of tragic women into simple forms—words, visage, shapes—at once severe and tender. And at Galerie Neue Alte Brücke there was Yngve Holen, perhaps the most talked about artist of the fair (“Buy him, now,” said one adviser), who creates objects—water coolers, iPhones, sneakers—that seem pillaged by the passage of time, occasionally shelved like wonky Haim Steinbachs or sawed open so you can ponder their insides.
Left: Dealers Frédéric Bugada and Claudia Cargnel. Right: Artist Nicolas Ceccaldi.
The tension between motion and its effects was everywhere in Art Basel’s Parcours, a program of site-specific interventions, performances, and sculptures in and around the Kaserne Basel in the city’s historic quarters. There was Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project, which restaged Merce Cunningham’s challenging 1964 work Winterbranch, an essay on the “physical fact” of the body falling and rising. There too was Danh Vo’s Gustav’s Wing, for which the artist cast the body of his nephew in bronze, creating sculptures of ravaged body parts—a leg with a pitchfork buried into its charred flesh strung from the ceiling by a chain, a decapitated head lying facedown on the floor.
“At a time when the two-dimensional experience has become infinitely confused, movement is everything,” noted Gagosian’s Sam Orlofsky. “Otherwise it’s like a hall of mirrors.”
Potential energy and the slow-burn entropy of the body, of the work of art. I thought about this when I came upon Martin Walde’s interactive piece at Parcours, featuring a life-size wax figure seated below an infrared lamp. Visitors trigger the lamp, which melts the sculpture, effectively enabling Baselites to determine his lifespan. When I arrived, on the penultimate day of Art Basel, he was still in full form. Not even his hands, which shield the look of terror on his face from the light, indicated any sign of melting.
“Nobody stays that long,” said the guard. “I feel sorry for him. It’s like he’s begging to die.”
AT THE JUNE 10 VIP OPENING of Unlimited, it was clear from the jump that this was going to be the biggest Art Basel ever. During the Monday afternoon previews for Unlimited and Design/Miami Basel, people massed on the Messe between the new, stacked, Herzog & de Meuron–designed convention halls, semiprotected from stormy weather by a ballooning aluminum canopy with an oculus to the sky. “We’re calling it the bum-hole,” said Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner. That was no joke. It was an accurate image—and a neat metaphor—for the immersive experience ahead.
“It’s like a trip without leaving the ground,” Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer said of the show in Hall 2, where he had installed monumentally scaled, or epically conceived, works by seventy-nine artists. Films by Pierre Huyghe, Dara Friedman, and Tunga stood out, especially the searing antiwar documentary by Johan Grimonprez. But there was also a thirty-foot-long whale painted—in plaid—by Sean Landers, a seventy-two-foot-long panorama of taxi-yellow graphics by Matt Mullican, a six-meter-tall leaning wall by Matt Connors, and a giant tar rooftop by Theaster Gates. With the addition of several architectural environments, like the labyrinthine mall by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe and a grotesque textile larynx by Piotr Uklański, this Unlimited sometimes felt like a carnival fun house, with only some of the fun.
Controversy was part of it. At the exhibition’s start was a giant teepee of a hinged steel sculpture with Lygia Clark’s name on it. It was accurately titled Fantastic Architecture I, and dealer Alison Jacques and the Clark family had had it fabricated from a 1963 maquette that the artist never realized in her lifetime. “The technology didn’t exist back then,” said gallery director Roger Tatley. This wasn’t the first time “new” work by a dead artist had hit the market. “I don’t have a problem with it,” said curator turned dealer Paul Schimmel. “I think it’s great.” Other people had trouble with a dealer acting for an artist who might have rethought the work had she had the chance.
Complainers also grumbled that there was too much meaningless art being made for the sake of scale. That didn’t stop anyone from buying it. There were new alliances made as well. The ghostly Marc Camille Chaimowicz sex club–like environment from 1972 that began Stefan Kalmár’s administration of Artists Space reappeared here, next door to a production-line installation by Oscar Murillo. “It’s quite good, isn’t it?” Chaimowicz told dealer Isabella Bortolozzi in front of a beaming Murillo. “Everything here needs to be here—there’s nothing superfluous. It’s almost skeletal.”
That is not something one heard elsewhere during this all-consuming, weeklong fair. (Ultimately, it drew a record 86,000 people.) Yet artists also provided works of a refreshingly noncommercial nature. Chief among them were the forty-five-minute custom recitals that Stephen Prina arranged at Galerie Mezzanin for the Vienna-based virtuoso pianist Marino Formenti to perform for audiences of one—probably the fair’s most cathartic work—and Jonathan Horowitz’s Free Store, where anyone could give or take merchandise at will. “We’re getting a pizza oven tomorrow,” Horowitz said, eyeballing the airline seats and beautiful carpets already donated to his project, which invoked the spirit of Berkeley’s Diggers, circa 1967’s Summer of Love. “I wanted to make an analogy between the earth and a store,” Horowitz said. “People think they can take anything from the earth, but of course they can’t.”
What they can and must do is party, the one hard and fast, unwritten rule of art fairs. This year, buttoned-down Basel moved closer in spirit to Miami than ever. Monday night’s revels amounted to a case study in intemperate social anthropology. A 303/Lisson/Miguel Abreu/Esther Schipper gallery beer and pizza party for Ceal Floyer and Florian Plumhösl at Café des Arts segued into the dinner at Union, where Gavin Brown and Sadie Coles ordered up a buffet for Horowitz that was probably the best reason for veganism that bratwurst-loving Basel has seen. Such a shame that Peter Brant and his two princely sons, Harry and Peter Jr., passed it up to gab with Rob Pruitt and Brown.
At Volkshaus, Mickalene Thomas plugged in “Better Days,” the Absolut Art Bar that she created every night of fair week. With guest DJs like Derrick Adams and Simon de Pury, works by Wangechi Mutu, Duron Jackson, Lorna Simpson, and Xaviera Simmons as well as Thomas on the walls, this was absolutely the coolest party in town. “I feel like I just stepped into one of your paintings!” said Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. “You are activating my artwork,” Thomas replied, before slipping behind the bar to mix drinks from a menu that started with Phuck U #1. Total fun.
It helps to be rich in Basel. No one gets off cheap. On Tuesday, thanks to a breakfast that put collectors in the hall early, the forty-fourth Art Basel saw the aisles jammed and every single booth taking on customers before the first hour had passed. “How much for the Calder?” a European collector inquired of Pace Gallery director Emily-Jane Kirwan. “It’s twelve million dollars,” she replied. “Twelve million?” The small mobile, Kirwan said, came from a “very special time” for the artist. “Twelve million?” the collector repeated, going back for another look.
By 1 PM, the red benches along the hall’s inner-circle windows were filling up with weary dealers and collectors, grateful for a place to rest. Before the very active Sprüth-Magers stand, fronted by an eye-catching new wall work by Reinhard Mucha, a female Michael Jackson lookalike in black leather sat inches from Chelsea dealer Mark Benda, while Monika Sprüth fended off fans of the dazzling German soccer legend Michael Ballack, who was making his first visit to the fair. “There’s my old boss!” he exclaimed when Roman Abramovich appeared with advisor Sandy Heller. “Ballack just bought the Mucha,” someone whispered.
As Broad Foundation director Joanne Hyler entered the booth, art handlers carried out a Baldessari—a favorite of Ballack’s—only to replace it with another. “It’s so new-looking,” observed Nedda Young. “That drives me crazy, but I like it.” Peter Fischli came by to check on the 1988 Fischli & Weiss cast-plaster car on offer. “It’s really good art,” he said.
Good art from many decades was everywhere. Dealers went all out. Luhring Augustine had a handsome stand. So did Gavin Brown, Gladstone, Chantal Crousel, Cheim & Read, and Dominique Lévy, who was making her first appearance as a solo dealer since splitting with Robert Mnuchin. Waves of collectors parted when the biker-chic architect Peter Marino walked through the crowded Gagosian stand. “Larry’s been flogging those Marilyns too long,” cracked one bystander, her eye fixed on Marino’s retreating back.
Upstairs, Swiss collector Ulla Dreyfus-Best swanned through the VIP lounge in an Art Basel team jacket. “The labels won’t tell you, but four of the Max Ernsts in the show at the Beyeler came from me,” she said. “So it must be good!” Curator Simon Castets lunched on sushi with Hans Ulrich Obrist in the Net Jets Lounge, and after I followed them to the Features section for dealer-curated themed or solo projects. We started on the second tier. I happen to like this section best, because it’s a place to make discoveries. In this round, Cherry and Martin’s presentation of the 1986 triple slide show Surrealism on TV by Robert Heinecken qualified, as did wall works by sixty-five-year-old Brazilian artist Sonia Gomes at Mendes Wood and the population-growth graphics by octogenarian Mexican architect and urban planner Eduardo Terrazas at Proyectos Monclova. His Exponential Growth codex included a terrifying found photograph of the 1946 A-bomb test on Bikini Island. “We’ve been in crisis since that moment,” Terrazas noted.
A Pablo Bronstein performance was going on, continually, in the Herald St booth. It featured two actors costumed as Robespierre and Marie Antoinette and expressing sprezzatura attitudes, supposedly minutes after coitus. No longer speaking, they were each turning the pages of the same book. “Another living sculpture!” Obrist said. (There had been a few.) “If collectors would give hundred-year endowments, museums could show living sculptures every day, the way they do marble ones. All you’d need is a new form of contract.” Nodding, all dealer Nicky Verber could say was, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Meanwhile, in the outside world, Turkey was exploding, Greece had shut down its Internet, and Russia declared homosexuality dangerous. But the sales went on unimpeded till dinner time, when Regen Projects, Jonathan Viner, 303 Gallery, Michele Maccarone, Eva Presenhuber, Kamel Mennour, the Modern Institute, and David Kordansky combined forces for a buffet blast at the Restaurant Schällenursli, a dairy farm where live Swiss cows watched the cooks grill steaks and shrimps.
Some of us departed for the Kunsthalle, but this was still before midnight and the crowd hadn’t yet reached its usual teeming density. Still, it included Joe La Placa, now a dealer in London, but back in the early 1980s, he was the guy who joined Diego Cortez to bring Jean-Michel Basquiat to Annina Nosei. La Placa spun a fascinating history of the time, until Francesco Bonami appeared with Massimo De Carlo and soon everyone from every other dinner in town stormed the garden for a late-night drink and gabfest. “Why do we do it?” asked Daniel Buchholz. I didn’t know if he was talking about the fair or the drinking. “I can’t get enough,” he added, speaking for many. “I never get tired of doing this.”
Wednesday it was back to the fair and to Unlimited, which had struck me as a disappointment the first time but now seemed more involving and replete with living sculptures like the runners Martin Creed sent through the hall and the people that Amalia Pica hired to stand here and there holding a string of colored pennants. I wandered through Statements, where veteran Viennese dealer Hubert Winter held the Richard Tuttle–like wires that Judith Fegerl used to burn the walls, Janice Guy tirelessly worked Sergei Tcherepnin’s copper “Pied Piper” sculptures in her booth, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins made her strongest showing to date with dealer Laurel Gitlen.
None of this prepared anyone for the evening ahead. At the Kunstmuseum, Tina Brown advanced a bid to be the next Barbara Walters by interviewing Theaster Gates for the glam artist conversation and dinner hosted by Credit Suisse, Dasha Zhukova, Daphne Guinness, Hollywood agent Bryan Lourd, and Brown’s Newsweek/Daily Beast. And at Der Teufelhof, the Swiss-born Dominique Lévy packed in a hundred other collectors, dealers, and friends (Christie’s Bret Gorvy, dealers Daniella Luxembourg and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, collectors Bill and Maria Bell) for a dinner celebrating her new business. This was a sweet affair that included a heartfelt tribute to Sarah Watson, director of the soon-to-close L&M Arts gallery in Venice, California and appearances by the Dmitri family of circus performers who provided a special thrill. A clown in a red jacket and red bowler hung upside-down as the guests filed in. During dinner, a woman played Spanish guitar and burst into full-throated song. When it came time for dessert, Lévy invited everyone into the courtyard, where tightrope walker Masha Dimitri did a sensational routine with a parasol—without a net.
I’ve never taken a poll, but I would bet this was one of the most unusual dinners ever staged at Art Basel. What could top it? How about Kanye West? That very evening, an announcement had gone out via e-mail and Twitter that the rap star would hold an impromptu, admission-free “listening party” for his new CD, Yeezus, at the design hall.
It all started at the Salon 94/R & R booth that afternoon, when West expressed a desire to perform on a stage that would feature a Rick Owens chair as a prop. “It inspired him,” said Rohatyn, after dealer Rodman Primack suggested he do a concert with the Stag Stool in their booth. Miami collector Craig Robins pulled it together for a midnight show. A crowd of about a thousand white people loitered in the darkened hall, while West stood onstage discussing what to do with the two dealers and a soundman.
At 12:30 AM, with the Owens stool bathed in crimson light at center stage, West brought out his laptop and opened it. Mostly he stood in front of the computer screen, playing tracks from his album and complaining that the volume provided wasn’t loud enough. He also talked about himself as a “celebrity boyfriend,” going through his art-school history and his rise as superstar entrepreneur of music and fashion. “I really came to Basel to have dinner with the Kramlichs,” he said, just as the collecting couple took seats at the lip of the stage.
Kanye West performs “New Slaves” at Design Miami Basel.
After four tracks, the crowd started getting restless. “Sing live! Sing live!” people shouted. West heard them. “Everyone has to be quiet,” he said and ripped into a blazing a cappella performance of the angry, expletive-infused rap “New Slaves” that was so powerful it struck everyone dumb—and sent them out humming “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” the song’s most resonant rhyme. Without all the trappings of a studio production, the raw talent and charisma that have kept West at the top of the pop music world were on inescapable display. “That was awesome,” said Watson, as West left the stage and stood by the door, shaking hands and thanking every single person who exited through it. “Now that is classy,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler.
After that, the rest of the week seemed anticlimactic, even given the amazing Steve McQueen retrospective at the Schaulager, the Picasso show at the Kunstmuseum, the Ernst show at the Beyeler, and the exhibition within it of the entire edition of five headless stuffed horses by Maurizio Cattelan. On the plane back to New York, I kept thinking of an observation Lévy made during Masha Dimitri’s faultless balancing act on the wire at Der Teufelhof. “To me,” she said, “that is the art world. That’s it.”
WOULD THE AMERICANS who went home after Venice return to Europe for Art Basel? That was the elephant in the room among dealers shuttling to Zurich last Saturday for the exhibition openings, symposia, and dinners that made up this year’s Contemporary Art Weekend, the amuse-bouche of the selling feast to come. Yet anyone in Zurich who wasn’t British, Swiss, or German appeared to be from New York, Los Angeles, or Dallas.
John Baldessari, for example, was celebrating his eightieth birthday with a show of tasty new paintings at Mai 36 Galerie. Fresh from opening their current show at Sean Kelly, Los Carpinteros installed new body-related sculpture (large rusty nails, a “hairball” of poodle-like fur), drawings, and a decidedly pornographic film in Peter Kilchmann’s space. Two floors below, Eva Presenhuber presented a new group of bluestone primitives by Swiss-born New Yorker Ugo Rondinone, slightly smaller siblings of the sculptures that he had previously debuted at Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. On the mall outside were new sculptures by Mark Handforth and Eva Rothschild, two of the thirteen works in this year’s “Guest Rooms,” Zurich’s public art program.
“Check out RaebervonStenglin,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler, flying the flag for the young Swiss gallery tucked within a complex of industrial warehouses around the corner. Here, I found a completely engaging show of small paintings by Ivan Seal—a Brit based in Berlin.
“Having art in the streets changes a town,” city councilwoman Ruth Genner told the hundreds gathered in the Maag Event Hall for the annual Zurich Art Dinner. She didn’t say what kind of changes. Looking around, a bewildered brother from another planet might have concluded that this one was populated solely by educated, well-to-do white people who routinely leave their businesses and families to follow art wherever it lands.
Seated at long tables hosted by each of the Zurich galleries were collectors, museum curators, and directors, artists, dealers—anyone who wasn’t attending the Barbara Gladstone/Jean Bernier/Marina Eliades/Christopher Müller/Daniel Buchholz dinner at Kronenhalle for Cameron Jamie, another contributor to the public art program and the subject of a retrospective opening at Kunsthalle Zürich the next day.
Talk centered on the Venice Biennale, the rainy weather in Europe, artists in favor, and, in the case of collector Mera Rubell, news of the hotel that she and Don Rubell recently took over in Baltimore. “Baltimore has great architecture,” she told Nasher Sculpture Center director Jeremy Strick, “and fabulous museums. It’s exciting.”
Left: Dealer Eva Presenhuber. Right: Collector Emily Ringier with dealer Shaun Caley Regen.
Over an entrée of veal steak with organic beef ragout—so Swiss—Rothschild spoke of her admiration for Scottish artist Cathy Wilkes with such stunning reverence that it (happily) made me put down my fork. As dinner went on, the praise for Massimiliano Gioni’s “Encyclopedic Palace” in Venice was so close to universal that it seemed something had to be wrong. How often does it happen that everyone likes such a sweeping show?
Opinion was more divided the next morning at the Löwenbräu art complex, where Beatrix Ruf introduced her retrospective for Jamie. “I’m not convinced,” I heard more than one person touring the exhibition say. “Mike Kelley was the first to recognize that Jamie was really special,” said Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. “He’s turning the inside out and the outside in,” Ruf said. “I wish everyone a lot of insight with this show.” But insights were not limited to the show. “The Turkey I left to go to Venice was not the same country I came back to afterward,” said Füsun Eczacibasi, the Istanbul-based chair of the SAHA art foundation. “It’s great,” she added. “The optimism is huge.”
Jamie’s two dark-underbelly-of-suburbia videos led the popular vote for the show, which included photographs, masks, wall-mounted and freestanding ceramic sculptures, drawings, and books—enough art to fill galleries on two floors. Meanwhile, drawings by Lee Bontecou and paintings by Wilhelm Sasnal at the two Hauser & Wirth spaces barely earned a glance, though the very curious stopped into a sculpture show by Canadian Geoffrey Farmer at the Migros Museum.
An exhibition of new sculpture and a video by Trisha Donnelly in one of Eva Presenhuber’s two satellite galleries baffled some and enthralled others (like Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist). But the black-and-white gouaches and photographs by Jay DeFeo in the other Presenhuber space were gorgeous and sadly neglected by too many rushing to the buffet lunch preceding “POOL,” an exhibition and four-hour-long symposium on collecting and public/private curating hosted by Maja Hoffmann’s LUMA Foundation.
At the same time, Gigi Kracht, the curator wife of hotelier Andrea Kracht, was seating guests (Guggenheim Foundation director Richard Armstrong, dealer Kenny Schachter, and many collectors including the Swiss Willi Leiman and the Bangalore businessman Ash Kakkar) for a lunch at the fabulous Baur au Lac. It celebrated “Art in the Park XI,” a sculpture exhibition in the hotel gardens and the first European exhibition in sixty-three years of works by the virtually forgotten Australian artist Robert Klippel. It was André Breton who had organized the late Klippel’s debut in Paris, said Kracht, who put the current show together with Galerie Gmurzynska. “He was a recluse,” explained Andrew Klippel, the artist’s far more gregarious musician son.
Other troops priming themselves for Basel—Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, Marguerite Hoffman and her dealer daughter Hannah Hoffman—were lunching in the hotel’s garden at a table opposite the one where David Maupin was meeting private dealer Kim Heirston and her husband Richard Evans, seemingly unaware of the POOL symposium unfolding across town. Conceived by Ruf with Zoe Gray and Fionn Meade, it included a pilot exhibition of works from the collections of Michael Ringier and Hoffmann organized by Bard CCS grad Gabi Ngcobo. Speakers included Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, De Appel director Ann Demeester, Bard CCS director Tom Eccles, and artist Mario Garcia Torres. Opinion about this was divided too, among those who wanted to hear more from artists and those who thought it was an important platform to consider the future impact of private collections on those of public institutions.
Left: Serpentine Gallery codirector Hans Ulrich Obrist with collector Peter Handschin. Right: Historian Michelle Nicol, MoMA curator Laura Hoptman and artist Ugo Rondinone.
Afterward, vans shuttled everyone to Ringier’s modernist house in the hills for a sunset viewing of the collection that he and his wife, Ellen, keep in every room. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. Curator turned dealer Paul Schimmel held court on the terrace with Baldessari as Wexner Center director Sherri Geldin, Stedelijk director Ann Goldstein, independent curator Simon Castets, artists Sean Landers and Angela Bulloch, former auctioneer Simon de Pury, dealers Andrea Rosen, Lisa Spellman, and a hundred other guests poured through the house.
This entirely pleasant hour, which felt a bit like a Continental Gatsby, led up to dinner at Hoffmann’s Marcel Breuer–designed home on another hill, where there was more hanging out and some glances exchanged at the sight of LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch and Schimmel in the same room. Once the bountiful food was served, everyone got down to the business of social maneuvering, speaking of art in Switzerland’s three languages and feeling suitably prepped for the front lines in Basel, where Art Statements and Art Unlimited would open the next day to more mixed reviews. But that’s another story.
Left: Los Carpinteros (Dagoberto Rodríguez & Marco Castillo) with dealer Peter Kilchmann. Right: Artist Matt Mullican.
THE ROAD TO ATHENS is lined with empty billboards. One after another, endless and contentless, in various stages of abandon. Small irony that each is topped with a small placard, presumably the name of the parent company: REMEDY. When you enter Athens, however, there’s at least a superficial sense of a city on the mend. From Kolonaki to Kypseli, there’s a new world of design hotels and hipster bars, where cabs come when called and upstart, all-caps ventures like CAN and LIGHTROOM Projects cultivate a decidedly Athenian sensibility.
“You in Greece should know about things falling apart,” Urs Fischer cracked, good-naturedly. “I just wanted to speed up the process so we can all enjoy it.” It was Sunday afternoon, and the artist was addressing a young crowd at the city’s Cycladic Museum. More specifically, he was discussing the mechanics of clay, the main material of “Yes,” the latest in Deste’s annual events in an abandoned slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra. Fischer’s “Yes” is not about simple optimism; it’s about permissiveness, and a process of accumulation and imagination, of an affirmation that’s less about agreeability than it is about constant creativity, in its crudest elements.
This kind of flexibility pervaded “The System of Objects,” an eye-opening selection from the Dakis Joannou collection on view at the Deste space in Athens. “Reloaded” by architect Andreas Angelidakis, with help from design curator Maria Cristina Didero, the survey mingled art, furniture, and fashion. Rather than serve up more “Skin Fruit,” (the cause célčbre collection show curated by Jeff Koons at the New Museum), this exhibition reveals deeper roots. Sure, there was Koons, but only as a backdrop to Joannou’s flock of Baroque figurines. The collector’s sometime adviser Jeffrey Deitch joined me in front of one particularly jaunty Christ child: “Dakis was buying these kinds of things before anyone else, just on his own intuition, because he liked them. How prescient was that?”
To emphasize the “foundational” aspect, Angeladakis attacked the architecture, hollowing out spaces, exposing support rods, and repurposing packing materials as pedestals. Objects on display ranged from Joannou’s very first acquisition (a Lucio Del Pezzo, a graduation gift from his parents), to a sofa shaped like a bird’s nest, to recent drawings from the likes of Christiana Soulou, Paul Chan, and Sam Durant, which were hung salon style within a spare, wood-beam structure. In another room, drywall display columns showcased singular works, from a fiercely patterned Cypriot vase to a jaw-dropping Picabia to a pair of red sparkly American Apparel leggings from a Juergen Teller photo shoot with Daisy Lowe, an aspiring something-or-other. The last large gallery contained a pyramid of shipping crates festooned with works by Elad Lassry, Haris Epaminonda, and Robert Gober. The history lesson concluded in a room wallpapered with documentary snapshots from the Deste archive. “Well, this is embarrassing,” moaned current Venice Biennale artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, pointing to a group photo. “I think I’m probably twelve years old in this picture.”
From there it was on to the collector’s home and ad hoc exhibition space, where a room peopled with Paweł Althamer sculptures prefaced a sampling of Andro Wekua’s mnemosyne architecture. I skipped the lychee cocktails, slipping into a crowd that included dealers Barbara Gladstone, Javier Peres, and Andrzej Przywara; Christie’s Francis Outred; and curators and museum folk like Lisa Phillips, Ann Temkin, and Nadja Argyropoulou. I spotted artist Jakub Julian Ziolkowski wearing an eyeball pin, similar to the one Gioni had sported on his lapel the day before. “Jakub made it and gave it to me,” the curator grinned. “He says I have a good eye.”
Left: Musicians Lakis Ionas and Aris Ionas. Right: Artist Paweł Althamer and curator Andrzej Przywara.
The main crowd-pleaser that evening turned out to be the food, which was no-frills, just delicious. I staked out a poolside seat with Wekua, 032c editor Jörg Koch, Victoria Yee Howe, and a crew from Maurizio Cattelan’s Toilet Paper magazine, but the table guests would shuffle frequently as the buffet beckoned. When it came time for dessert, an ice cream cart was rolled out, offering respite to those who didn’t manage to get their gelato fix in cold, rainy Venice. Cattelan had caught a cold of his own—a tragedy, as I’m told he always inaugurates the dance floor—so it was left to Althamer to do the honors. Damn, did he ever, shimmying, sliding, and twirling in ways counter to what we know of physics. “Watching him dance, I suddenly understand his figures,” Deitch marveled, drawing closer. Joannou smiled, nodding: “He’s got the moves.”
The next morning, a handful of guests reassembled on Guilty, Joannou’s yacht, for the trip to Hydra. Following the tradition of artist-designed boats (Jenny Holzer outfitted the first), Koons covered this vessel with a combination of Lichtenstein and “Razzle Dazzle,” a British submarine camouflage pattern. “There’s an ode to Iggy Pop on the roof, but you can only see that from the harbor,” curator Cecilia Alemani. I personally preferred the Doug Aitken flag, identifying the boat’s port-of-call as “Wherever the fuck I am.”
Once on the island, we forwent the local custom of loading luggage onto donkeys and beelined to the slaughterhouse, where Fischer was surrounded by mounds of unformed clay. Last month, Fischer had brought a version of “Yes” to LA MoCA, where he invited community members to create their own clay sculptures—thousands of them. The results filled the entire Geffen building. In Hydra, the artist took a different approach, starting with a miniature model of Hydra fashioned by local schoolchildren. Under the relentless Greek sun, the clay weathered almost immediately, evincing an Acropolis vibe in just a day or two. “It’s as if these sculptures sprouted there naturally,” Argyropoulou observed, surveying the rocky bank to the slaughterhouse. As the project progressed, the hillside became home to all manner of sleeping mermaids, sphinxes, portraits of the local harbormaster, and Teller’s minimalist camera, a rectangle with a flash bulb, after the lens cracked and broke off. (While still a universal medium, clay is trickier than our preschool memories would have us believe.) When we poked our heads in, Fischer was taking a break while Tara Subkoff put the final feathers on what was to be a dead dove. “You should make some smiling ones,” Fischer called from the corner. (The artist at work.)
Left: Photographer Juergen Teller and Barney's creative director Dennis Freedman. Right: Dealers Javier Peres and Almine Rech.
When the official opening time rolled around, the artist was still lingering over a sunset cocktail. I was having drinks at Pirate Bar with Sadie Coles, Teller, Ketuta Alexi, Wekua, and Mirabelle Marden, who was sporadically greeted by island-dwellers, all eager to remind her how they fondly remembered her and her sister as children. When we finally wandered down the slope to the slaughterhouse, guests had gathered in variations of Hellenic attire. We were greeted with “red” (Greek rosé) or “yellow” (“gasoline wine”), and offered plastic gloves and blocks of clay, so that we could add to the collection of figurines slowly colonizing the hillside.
Inside the abattoir, two local teenagers—modern Greek gods, stripped to sweat-soaked denim shorts—labored over a particularly complex piece: a gas-masked mother clutching her gas-masked infant through a set of iron bars. I had a perfect view of the process from my seat at the family-style dinner, one long table for all 350 guests, mostly locals, which stretched down one of the island’s car-free, cat-infested roads. Joannou watched the boys a moment: “It’s amazing to have them produce something so similar to Paweł’s work.” Turning to Fischer, he added: “Actually, Paweł’s down there right now with ten tons of clay. You may have some competition soon.” “Just as long as it isn’t on the dance floor,” Fischer shot back.
Left: Curator Nadja Argyropoulou. Right: Collector Dakis Joannou (right).
The next day, more ambitious guests waited in line for ferries back to Athens to catch the opening of Taryn Simon at the George Economou Collection, or the first of Martino Gamper’s “100 Chairs in 100 Days” at the Benaki Museum Annex. Others lingered behind, spending another day in the sun, then boarding evening boats to the Peloponnese for the second edition of Lustlands, a farmhouse festival organized by Argyropoulou and Athens’s Ionas brothers, Lakis and Aris (better known as “The Callas”). This year’s theme—On the Great Eastern—cited the scandalous eight-volume novel by psychoanalyst and photographer Andreas Empiricos. Written in the late 1940s but only published in 1991, the epic follows the erotic misadventures of passengers aboard a steam ship. (Think a Cinemax remake of The Love Boat.)
Accordingly, artists including Maria Papadimitrou, Poka-Yio, Rallou Panagiotou, and ATOPOS CVC produced duly provocative works (among them, a pretty pink painting of an acrobatic pig performing fellatio, and a placard reading MY VIBRATOR IS AN OCEAN LINER), which were sown through the surrounding fields in Thermissia. We arrived more or less “on time,” only to find most of the artists downing Heinekens around the barbecue or setting up projectors in the rundown farmhouse. Tents were set up in the citrus grove, an indication that the participants were in no rush. Why should they be? “It may be a cliché, but the crisis really is what makes these kinds of relaxed festivals possible,” a French-born artist explained, handing me a plastic cup of wine from a thermos. “Look, everyone wants to talk about the crisis, but Greece will be fine,” critic Glykeria Stathopolou assured me later. “Come back for the biennial; see for yourself.”
Left: High Line curator Cecilia Alemani and Vera Alemani. Right: Collector Laura Skoler.
Left and right: Street performances around the Giardini. (Photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)
ON A DAZZLING SATURDAY AFTERNOON, splashed with resplendent sunshine after too many cool gray days of rain, I slowly picked my way through the hordes of tourists, whether drawn by warmth or light, who had turned out suddenly and in droves to clog the quintessentially Venetian quay that loops around San Marco and runs along the edges of Castello and the Arsenale. At the foot of a bridge leading over to the quieter corners of the Giardini, I stumbled across a woman in a long, pink, ruffled flamenco dress, lying perfectly still, facedown on the ground, surrounded by a fan, a scarf, a strewn bouquet of red carnations, and the torn pages of a totally destroyed book. A few steps on, I found another woman in red shorts, a Maoist cap, and a severely belted army jacket, subjecting herself to some kind of self-torture, perched as she was on what looked like a serrated-edge cutting board that had already dug deep grooves into her knees. A few steps further still, I came across yet another woman in public performance mode, poised like a garden fountain and pulling on the straps of a black bra hooked over a thin white leotard, as a policeman marched comic military circles around her.
Welcome to day one for the masses, the official public opening of the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale, when the professionals vanish, the press scatters to see every last thing, and ordinary people cram into the world’s oldest and most prestigious international art event, which, if nothing else, routinely turns this majestically crumbling city into a stage set, a premise, and a pretext for some extraordinary acts of hope, fear, desire, ambition, playfulness, desperation, pain, distress, and urgent political protest.
As it happened, I was looking for precisely the last of those acts. Twenty-four hours had passed since riot police in Istanbul had begun pelting demonstrators with tear gas canisters, water cannons, and plastic bullets. What had started a few days earlier as a peaceful protest against the government’s plans to wreck a public park and replace it with a shopping mall had escalated into a full-blown, nationwide revolt against the socioeconomic policies and increasingly authoritarian tactics of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former activist who first entered the political fray as the mayor of Istanbul. Erdogan’s disproportionately violent reaction to the tiny tent-city occupation of Gezi Park, which lies just beyond Taksim Square, the nation’s preeminent open forum for dissent and discontent, had shocked the world. At the time, however, Turkey’s local television stations had imposed a total media blackout and were broadcasting cooking shows rather than covering events in real time.
Protesters outside the Arsenale. (Photo: Defne Ayas)
Because the demographic of the protesters overlapped pretty much perfectly with the entirety of Istanbul’s contemporary art scene, factional as it may be, the contingent of Turkish artists, writers, curators, critics, collectors, dealers, and patrons who had traveled to Venice for the Biennale were deeply troubled and extremely upset. About twenty-five of them had gathered the night before at the house of art critic and academic Osman Erden to share news (social media, reports from friends, international press), design banners (many of them courtesy of the artist Qiu Zhijie), write statements, and prepare to make a short, sweet, but nonetheless potent public fuss (with a hundred more friends and colleagues). And so, on June 1, as the Biennale opened its doors, the Istanbul crew—including Ali Kazma and Emre Baykal, artist and curator of Turkey’s national pavilion in the Arsenale, respectively; Defne Ayas, director of Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art; curators Başak Senova, Duygu Demir, Ceren Erdem, Adnan Yildiz, Övül Durmuşoğlu, and Beral Madra; former Rampa director Özkan Cangüven; Derya Demir of Galerie NON; Filiz Avunduk of NON-stage and Frieze; HG Masters, ArtAsiaPacific’s Istanbul-based editor at large; Bige Örer, director of the Istanbul Biennial; and Fulya Erdemci, curator of the Istanbul Biennial’s forthcoming edition, which is, not coincidentally, taking up the most prescient of public space–related themes—gathered a hearty band of supporters on Piazza San Marco, then traveled east on foot to the Arsenale and the Giardini, where I found them looking grave but defiant.
“I think it’s a really critical historical moment,” said Örer.
“We stand by our country,” said Ayas. “We stand united against state violence and injustice.”
“Istanbul is rising,” Erdemci declared. What began with the police tearing down trees and burning tents, she added, “has triggered an exponentially growing resistance movement.” She pledged herself to it.
Someone handed me a carefully crafted statement: “As the cultural workers from Turkey attending the Venice Biennale, we draw your attention to these events in condemnation,” it said after a summary. “We call on officials to hear the calls of the citizens and demand that they immediately stop the disproportionate use of force.”
“It’s the first time since the coups of the 1970s that people are out on the streets across Turkey,” Erdem told me. “It’s not only about the trees in the park. It’s about Erdogan’s policies on Syria. It’s about the recent attempt to ban alcohol. It’s about how all of Istanbul has become a construction site.”
“This is probably the one time when the nationality of the pavilion for the Biennale serves a purpose,” said Avunduk, when asked what protesting in Venice would do. “It’s not a small thing. Everywhere now people are protesting. And the fact that it started with trees is a beautiful metaphor for freedom.”
On that note, the group dispersed, as many of its members took to furiously pecking their phones to reschedule flights and make arrangements for returning home early. The most pressing question of the afternoon was quickly becoming: “So do you have an extra gas mask?” With that image in mind, I headed back into the Biennale, wondering what this irruption of hard, real politics would mean for an event that seemed at times rather strained to avoid such contemporaneous conflicts.
To what extent, then, is Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition, “The Encyclopedic Palace,” a fundamentally apolitical show? Some, and none at all. Certainly, it is streaked with the curator’s devil-may-care attitude about gender balance and geographic spread, and more than a few visitors told me that the show’s emphasis on freaks and eccentrics, its collision of the mentally and politically marginal, and its sometimes questionable conception of Africa made them uneasy, as if the exhibition were the last arrogant gasp of a stubborn colonialist discourse. But as the physical and spatial articulation of what must ultimately be seen as a generous and down-to-earth idea, it is nothing if not distinctive.
The line of thought moving through the Arsenale seems particularly crisp and clear, from the great and noble desire to accumulate and categorize knowledge (starting with Marino Auriti’s eponymous architectural model) to the force of vision and imagination (and occasional madness) that forever breaks out of those efforts (the fabulous one-two punch of Neil Beloufa’s riveting video Kempinski and Steve McQueen’s gorgeous sound tracked slide projection Once Upon a Time) to the anxious and utopic aspects of living with too much information (Camille Henrot, Ryan Trecartin) to the more intimate and vulnerable desire, doubling back on the beginning, to disappear from or within the data grid (palpable in the video works by Bouchra Khalili and Hito Steyerl located at the land’s end of the Arsenale).
Championing outsider artists, leveling the field between precious artworks and talismanic objects, taking art down from its proverbial pedestal—in doing so Gioni skirts the demand to take the aesthetic or political pulse of our time, and yet to a certain, tentative extent, his exhibition brings both of them back to the body. Where is the political edge of this Biennale? It is nowhere to be found in the places one might expect to find it—not in the pavilion of a nation currently tearing itself apart, with 80,000 dead after two years of fighting (as usual, the Syrian pavilion is an insult of second-rate Italian painters and total oblivion); not in the feel-good gestures of the Iraq pavilion (despite its admirable hospitality and the rehabilitation of a tainted political name); definitely not in the predictably expensive installation at the now permanent UAE pavilion, which would not be out of place in a trade show for yachting enthusiasts. Nothing in the national pavilions this time around is as bold (or as productively problematic) as Yael Bartana’s video trilogy for the Polish pavilion in 2011, though Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” for the British pavilion shows some of the same spirit.
And yet, in the summer of 2013, the mere presence of a body, particularly a woman’s body, still has the power to provoke, destabilize, and explode a given order. No doubt the political edge of this Biennale still lingers in the shock of Maria Lassnig’s portrait of the artist holding a gun to her head, and to you. It flashes fitfully in the clutch of women sitting on the floor of the Central Pavilion, humming for Tino Sehgal, and finds fuller, more ruminative expressions in the performers animating the otherwise empty Romanian pavilion (reenacting a retrospective history of Venice, with actors as breathing archives of the Biennale itself), and in the choreographer Maria Hassabi’s “living sculptures,” whose bodies are draped and stretched across the benches of a sports stadium, brilliantly revealed in the terrific joint pavilion for Cyprus and Lithuania. It is outlined as an absence in Akram Zaatari’s installation for Lebanon’s second-ever national pavilion, where a seat has been left empty, awaiting the arrival of an Israeli fighter pilot who refused to bomb a school thirty years ago. And, weirdly paralleled, it is made all too painfully present in the videos of Meiro Koizumi, in an otherwise terribly installed collateral exhibition for the Future Generation Art Prize, about a kamikaze pilot who didn’t die, and feels ashamed for having lived.
Venice tends to reward a certain clarity of gesture, and the coherence of this year’s jury was especially impressive in that regard, handing out prizes only to those works that were conceptually sound and credibly testing out something new. But the city, in the midst of the severe art spasm it suffers every other year, also revels in spontaneity and chance. The time horizon of Gioni’s exhibition was long enough to make the current Manet exhibition at Palazzo Ducale feel suddenly as fresh and relevant as anything else on that sinking archipelago, and reaffirmed the artist’s status as the midwife of modernity. The chance to see Olympia and a version of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in the flesh, as it were, instead of in a book or on a battered art history lecture slide took my breath away. But what moved me most—and nudged me back to the elusive melancholy of “The Encyclopedic Palace” and an unexpected affinity for Dorothea Tanning’s portrait of herself as a fragile figure in front of an expanse of stormy sea—was Manet’s 1880 L’Évasion de Rochefort. Rare, and late, Manet’s painting wrestles a timely, historic event into a dramatic, metaphysical mood. The dark blot on the horizon is ambiguous. Perhaps it pursues Manet’s heroes, who are being tossed around by life and waves in a tiny dinghy. Perhaps it promises their salvation. Whatever the case, like a shadow falling across humanity, it haunts us all.
Left: Maria Lassnig, Du oder Ich (You or Me), 2005, oil on canvas, 80 x 61“. Right: Manet's Olympia at ”Manet: Return to Venice" at the Palazzo Ducale. (Photo: David Velasco)
IF MASSIMILIANO GIONI’S “Encyclopedic Palace” for the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale was anchored by “a desire to see and know everything,” the lunch that Metro Pictures and Pinocateca Agnelli threw for Cindy Sherman on soggy May 30 signified a desire to see and know everyone.
Held at the Byzantine-era Palazzo Malipiero—ground zero for a randy eighteenth-century teen named Giacomo Casanova—the buffet attracted enough boldface personalities to do any tenacious aristocrat proud. Yet the palazzo’s current owner, a stiffly coiffed blonde with narrow eyes, was unimpressed by the presence of Gioni and other star curators (Francesco Bonami, Caroline Bourgeois, Nicholas Cullinan) seated in her elegant salon with artists Miroslaw Balka, Sarah Sze, and Laurie Simmons; dealers Larry Gagosian, Philomene Magers, Lorcan O’Neill, and Philippe Ségalot; and collectors Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Maja Hoffmann, Marie Josée Kravis, Marella Agnelli, and Neda Young. “Lunch is finished!” the imperious owner said when she spotted drinks set on her carefully conserved antiques.
That sent a bunch of us out on the rain-swept San Samuele dock in search of a water taxi or vaporetto. Much to our surprise, a nearly empty, red-upholstered art boat showed up instead. On this welcome innovation supplied by the city, anyone holding a Biennale pass could ride express to the Punta della Dogana, San Giorgio Maggiore island, or the Giardini, though that was the only time I saw it all week.
Left: Jewish Museum deputy director for exhibitions and public programs Jens Hoffmann. Right: Guggenheim Foundation deputy director Ari Wiseman with dealers Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern.
It was such a good day to stay inside that I headed to the Arsenale, where Gioni’s look back over a hundred years of obsessive artmaking caught up to the digital age. “Loved the Arensale!” I kept hearing people say. “Best fucking Biennale ever,” was another refrain. I also heard “Awful thesis, interesting surprises.” “It’s all rubbish,” said a friend who was finally won over by the tragic beauty of a two-hundred-year-old Vietnamese temple erected by Danh Vo.
The great irony of spending days immersed in a Biennale built on accumulated pools of information is being cut off from the Internet and any other source of English-language news, except notoriously interpretive word-of-mouth. That leaves one blissfully ignorant of the outside world while seeing into its heart solely through the immediate artworks and architecture, inducing a sense of exile and of being in tune with a moment in which nothing else exists. It’s a little like being on drugs.
At the Arsenale, I felt swept up by the rhythms of a show that burbled, swelled, and eddied like the waters in the Venetian lagoon, navigating by turns from the sunny to the dark and back again. Though Gioni put forward artists he has shown at the New Museum—Paweł Althamer, Rosemarie Trockel, and a few from “Ostalgia” and “Ghosts in the Machine”—he managed to leap across generations, cultures, and media for an accounting of the visible as created, catalogued, or altered through human deliberation.
There was little to outrage or discourage here, more to intrigue, puzzle, or appeal. A room that paired Prabhavathi Meppayil’s copper-wire paintings with the late Channa Horwitz’s intricately composed linear progressions fell in the last group. Judging from how hard it was to get into the room, so did the Ed Atkins video. Still, the intense attention paid to Camille Henrot’s flash of a creation-story video made her win of the Silver Lion for best new artist almost predictable.
Sherman’s pivotal turn as guest curator midway through the show succeeded on several levels at once, displaying the fascinations of the human body in art as well as source material for one of our most influential artists. No one in the cavelike Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch lounge would give up a set of headphones, so I watched in silence, grateful for a chance to sit down. Though warned by critic Blake Gopnik that it was “not for the squeamish,” I found Italian artist Yuri Ancarani’s microsurgery video utterly captivating, almost against my will. At the end of the Arsenale, the bronze rods set across the floor by Walter De Maria paid off as a visual recitative that met its match outside, where the uniformed band in Ragnar Kjartansson’s dinghy, the S.S. Hangover, played a diurnal dirge by ex–Sigur Rós composer Kjartan Sveinsson that was the musical equivalent of a setting sun.
It was almost a shock to realize it was time for the evening’s brace of parties in every part of Venice. The Turkish pavilion reception for Ali Kazma at the Metropole gave no hint of the protests unfolding in Istanbul. At a nearby dock, impatience, rain, and wind got the better of me before the boat to Eva Presenhuber/303 Gallery/David Kordansky’s fete for Swiss artist Valentin Carron on Isola Vignole arrived, and I bolted for the Regen Projects/Andrea Rosen/Marion Dana/Sprüth Magers dinner for Trecartin and Fitch at the sanitized Bauer Palladio on the Giudecca.
Did I mention that Venice is one place in Italy where bad food is more common than good? There are exceptions, but this was not one of them. On the other hand, the company was pretty smart: museum people from West Coast and East, collectors, dealers—basically the same people I’d seen every day, only in a different context. On a yacht docked before the Casa dei Tre Oci, a few hundred feet away, the Moscow-based V-A-C Foundation was holding an even grander dinner for artists Paweł Althamer and Anatoly Osmolovsky that attracted the Europeans—collectors Dakis Joannou and Diana Picasso, Tate director Nicholas Serota, and artist Tacita Dean, whom I followed to the Trussardi-in-Venice rave celebrating the Milanese foundation’s tenth anniversary in the cavernous Tese dell’Arsenale.
After all the official gallery and pavilion dinners, this party was a liberation. It welcomed everyone, even Leonardo DiCaprio, and had no agenda other than fun. What else made it so good? The giveaways by artists previously given exhibitions by the foundation—gloppy bouquets of iced layer cakes stubbed with chocolate cigarettes by Maurizio Cattelan, Dean’s keychains bearing double-sided portraits of Gioni and Beatrice Trussardi. Some said the carpeting made all the difference. Others pointed to the DJ, Jarvis Cocker, who helped keep the crowd on its feet till the wee hours—6 AM, I heard the next day.
I might have stayed past 1 AM, but Alex Hertling and Daniele Balice were hosting another dance party at the tiny Piccolo Mondo in Dorsoduro. Thanks to the club’s violently tempered bouncers, there was a bigger crowd in the narrow street outside than on the dance floor inside, but it was all the same party and it too went on most of the night.
Morning came too soon, but I made it to “Padiglione Crepaccio”—a three-day exhibition for ten young Venetian artists organized by Milanese curator Caroline Corbetta and Yoox.com in a private seventeenth-century house—in time for a delicious (at last!) pasta lunch. Corbetta fashioned the show after Il Crepaccio, the store-window gallery in Milan inspired by Cattelan and Gioni’s Family Business Gallery in New York. The idea was to give some attention to Venetian artists neglected by the international scene. All had gone to art school in Venice and stayed; only one was over thirty, and two—Marco Gobbi and Caterina Rossato—were standouts. None had galleries in Venice, but all were selling through Yoox, where their work will be offered throughout the six-month run of the Biennale. This was a new world hidden inside the old one, a future that is arriving right now.
Left: Television personality Victoria Cabelo and Il Crepaccio curator Caroline Corbetta. Right: Artists Luca Migliorini, Valentina Roselli, Serena Vestrucci, Massimiliano Gottardi, and Barbara Prenka.
The opening week was winding down and there was still much to be done. I stopped by the new Louis Vuitton store in San Marco, where Tony Oursler’s video update of Pompeo Marino Molmenti’s 1879 painting La Morte di Otello was debuting; spent the cocktail hour with friends at Harry’s Bar; and dashed to the Eleven Rivington Gallery dinner at the Locanda Montin for Icelandic artist Katrin Sigurdardóttir, whose architectural intervention in the former laundry of Palazzo Zenobio was one of the Biennale’s better collateral events.
Another was The Enclave, Irish pavilion artist Richard Mosse’s multiscreen film documenting the lives of young soldiers in Congo, a sobering treatment of war that was all the more disturbing for its visual splendor. On Saturday, Jack Shainman’s boisterous birthday lunch for Mosse at Trattoria alla Madonna came shortly after the Golden Lion ceremony at the Giardini. Somehow it made the whole week feel less like a contest of national wills ruled by party envy than the reunion of a hugely extended family bound by the strength of its arguments. This Biennale hasn’t raised so many, at least not yet.
“It’s a container that used to hold life,” Sigurdardóttir said of her work at the Zenobio. “And what you have left is a container with an interesting surface.” This Biennale was that.
THE ONLY WAY to negotiate a city built on water is to go with the flow. That was the lesson of Tuesday, May 28—arrival day for the VIPs and art professionals invited to preview the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale for three days before its June 1 opening. First on the agenda: “The Encyclopedic Palace,” the central exhibition organized by Massimiliano Gioni, whose previous shows as chief curator of the New Museum in New York and the Trussardi Foundation in Milan gave many of us reason to expect the best, or at least the most acceptably compromised, Biennale ever.
Expectations are never a good thing to bring to an art show, especially in Venice, where surprise is rampant and the path to enlightenment takes more detours than one could possibly map. Two minutes after heading out for the Giardini, for example, I bumped into New York collectors Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg. They were hankering for a sneak peek at the Palazzo Grassi’s first exhibition devoted to a single artist, Rudolf Stingel. I went along.
Inside, we found dealer Tim Blum and his wife, Maria, staring up at an awesome sight. With his collaborator, curator Elena Geuna, Stingel had covered the floors and walls of the three-story palazzo with what press materials quaintly described as “oriental” red carpeting. Its installation was so total that it transformed the seventeenth-century building into a kind of Bedouin tent displaying a retrospective hang of Stingel paintings. The Grassi has not looked better since François Pinault took it over. The big grin we found on the collector’s face on our return to the ground floor suggested that he thought so too.
I caught a vaporetto for the Giardini. It was the wrong vaparetto, but in Venice one must trust to chance. Next thing I knew, I was at Pinault’s other Venetian museum, the Punta della Dogana. Curator Caroline Bourgeois and Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan were just beginning a tour of “Prima Materia,” the exhibition they organized from Pinault’s collection to coincide with the Biennale. Prima materia, Govan told the group, which included artist Will Cotton, LACMA trustee Wendy Stark, curator Jarrett Gregory, and bookseller Dagny Corcoran, is the basic material of alchemical transformation, something that engages everything and nothing all at once—like Gioni’s exhibition, Govan observed.
Though he tried hard to give the Pinault Foundation’s recent acquisitions of works by Mark Grotjahn, Theaster Gates, Llyn Foulkes, and Adel Abdessemed the significance of historical pieces by Bruce Nauman, James Lee Byars, and the Mono-Ha artists, “Prima Materia” felt more like a sacrificial offering to appease the market gods rather than a counterpoint to it. “Art comes from everywhere, and every culture, to define the moment we’re in,” Govan said, a moment that the Internet-mediated, physical space of video installations by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch perfectly capture, he said.
Meanwhile, what I heard people talk most about that day was a show that had nothing to do with this moment, other than its coincidence with the Biennale—“Manet: Return to Venice,” at the Palazzo Ducale. No one, I was told, should leave without seeing this show, which puts Manet’s Olympia right beside Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a stunning juxtaposition unlikely to occur at any other time or place.
Left: Artist Christian Marclay. Right: Curator Carey Lovelace with Bronx Museum director Holly Block.
The talk began right after the Dogana walk-through, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal, where the Guggenheim Foundation’s Richard Armstrong and Ari Wiseman; dealers Franco Noero, Andrew Kreps, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Anton Kern; collectors Richard Massey and Adam Lindemann; and several dozen others were celebrating the winner of the 2013 Calder Prize, Darren Bader. “It’s nothing and it’s everything,” he said, after his introduction by Sandy Rower, grandson of Alexander Calder and president of the Calder Foundation. “It’s all beautiful.”
I didn’t have far to go to crash the next party. At Casa Artom, next door to the Guggenheim Collection, Los Angeles dealer Mary Cherry was hosting a party for Wake Forest University’s Venetian outpost, where twenty-one students are currently in residence. By now it was twilight—the only evening of a rainy, chilly week when skies were clear—and time for the New Museum’s dinner for Gioni at Palazzo Pisani Moretta. Getting around Venice isn’t like walking through Chelsea. It’s far more maddening and also more fun. Inevitably, one takes wrong turns. Just as inevitably, they lead to the right places.
After mistakenly stumbling into the German pavilion dinner, and grazing the candlelit tables at the Gioni/New Museum soiree, I happily accepted the offer of a ride in a water taxi to the Biennale buffet dinner and dance party hosted by Barbara Gladstone, Gavin Brown, Sadie Coles, Jose Kuri, and Monica Manzutto at Palazzo Zeno. If it seemed as if everyone from New York was at the Pisani Moretta dinner, everyone else from New York, London, Berlin, Glasgow, Zurich, and Mexico City was at this one, drinking around the fountain on the ground floor, hanging over the first-floor balcony or hobnobbing in its salon or rolling in its bedroom, or dancing in a side room to music spun by White Columns director Matthew Higgs. Though it didn’t seem as if the party would wind down anytime soon, I joined another group water-taxiing to the late-night Biennale clusterfuck at the Bauer, where Shaun Caley Regen, Beth Swofford, Daniel Buchholz, Peter Currie, Dillon Cohen, and a thousand other revelers were calmly passing the time.
Left: Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp with dealer Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn and artist Laurie Simmons. Right: Artist Matthias Poledna.
Next morning brought the official first preview of the Biennale, which I reached in time for lunch at Nuovo Galeon outside the Giardini, where a contingent from the Bronx Museum, commissioner of the US pavilion, took over most of the outdoor tables, prior to a lunch for Bahamas pavilion artist Tavares Strachan. Passing through the Museum of Everything’s encampment in the Giardini greenhouses, I passed the Danish pavilion, which looked closed, followed the serpentine trail of Valentin Carron’s simple but rewarding installation in the Swiss pavilion, passed on the long line for Anri Sala’s film at the German pavilion—for this Biennale taken by the French—peeked at the group show of non-German artists in the French pavilion (now Germany’s), and pushed into Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” show at the British pavilion.
Already people were saying the Golden Lion for best artist was a toss-up between Deller and Sarah Sze, who had opened up a wall of the American pavilion for a seamless melding of inside and outside. “It’s all about systems of understanding,” said co-commissioner Carey Lovelace of the complex assemblages Sze created for the show, “Triple Point,” named for the condition of a substance where a substance exists as a gas, liquid and solid at once. “It’s a lamentation,” said Siddhartha Mukherjee, Sze’s husband and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies. “It’s a world within a world within a world,” said Sotheby’s chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer. “It’s a compass,” Sze would say later, when she wasn’t surrounded by reporters.
This is what is so stimulating about an international biennialthe conflicting perceptions, the range of ideas, the assurance that there is never any one way to think about art. After watching Mathias Poledna’s Imitation of Life, an animated musical short at the Austrian pavilion, Austrian president Hans Fischer asked, “How do you know you like it?” A fair question. At first, I thought it was fun to watch Disney-like characters sing “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’.” After considering that the principal character was an ass, and that the film reinforced 1930s ethnic stereotypes, it felt more troubling.
At the Israeli pavilion, Gilad Ratman installed The Workshop, a multichannel video and sound installation with a fictional narrative involving caves and an underground tunnel that emerged in the pavilion. “It’s visceral,” the artist said. “That’s what I do.”
I found Gioni sitting on a curb taking a breather from his exhibition, a kind of museum of the knowable that he said was jammed with visitors. “It’s a jungle in there,” he said. “The show looks terrible with so many people in there.”
Actually, it didn’t. I had a clear view of everything, from the Carl Jung drawings that began the show, through the Rudolf Steiner blackboard drawings and the performance in the rotunda by the actual Golden Lion for best artist winner Tino Sehgal, and all of the artworks by outsiders, by insiders, by the autistic, the imprisoned, the clairvoyant, the depressed, and the expert obsessives that individually attempt to represent the invisible, the ideal, the abject, and the impossible. For Gioni, the line between outsider and insider, natural and artificial, is mighty thin. “It’s about knowing who you are through images,” he would tell me later, speaking of his show as “the prehistory of Wikipedia”—one way to say it was about everything and nothing, I guess. It was really about the idea of the human body as the primary medium of the brain, a spiritualist who can manifest the invisible.
It was hard to know where to go first that evening, which offered an array of pavilion parties, including the French, the American, and the British, but all of them came after the opening of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” at the Prada Foundation’s Ca’ Corner della Regina. This was Germano Celant’s recapitulation of the seminal exhibition by Harald Szeemann, one that included the major American and European Minimalists and Conceptualists when they were young and daring. Though he was in Bern for the 1969 opening, Celant relied on documentary materials from the Getty and collaborated with Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand to re-create not just the obstacle-course installation of the original show but the whole Kunsthalle Bern within the Prada’s seventeenth-century palazzo. Some people hated the juxtaposition. Others were grateful to see the works displayed the way the artists had chosen—willy-nilly, as no institution would dare do today—though to see how Eva Hesse and Barry Flanagan situated themselves was all kinds of cool. A few artists, like Keith Sonnier and Lawrence Weiner, returned to remake their contributions. Broken chalk lines drawn on the floor like those at a crime scene marked sculptures that no longer exist. It all felt both melancholy and inspiring.
From there, the American pavilion dinner, in the fish market plaza by the Rialto bridge, felt anticlimactic. Initially a celebratory affair, it took on unpleasant us-and-them overtones when most of the crowd, including Sze’s dealers Tanya Bonakdar and Victoria Miro, realized that only a few people—the artist and friends like Lisa Yuskavage, Cindy Sherman, John Currin, and Yvonne Force Villareal—were seated for dinner service while everyone else had to line up for a buffet and retire to low banquettes, to eat with their plates on their laps.
Slow boats and no taxis kept me from going to the party for Deller, on Isola Vignole some distance away, though I heard it was the best of the night. There was the Bauer, of course, to deliver everything and nothing. Which it did. I left before any fistfights broke out, walking through the now ever-present rain and looking ahead to the Arsenale, the radiant arguments over art and fragile moral compass of this untidy universe, and the night of all parties to come.
Left: Artist Jessica Jackson-Hutchins. Right: Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf with Bard CCS director Tom Eccles and artist Uri Aran.