IT STARTED WELL, with a garden party and the sun smiling down on the grounds of Butler House. Butler House is the Dower House of Kilkenny Castle. In the past, if you were married to whichever Butler happened to be Duke or Earl of Ormonde at the time, you were shunted off here when your husband died. And what a nice place to be shunted to. We walked in past actors from Shakespeare’s Globe, rehearsing The Taming of the Shrew in the former stable yard to the delight of a gaggle of tourists getting a free show.
On into the gardens, a band played, and Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill) arrived, with his wife, the artist Jessica Voorsanger, and children Fergal and Etta. Smith had been in Kilkenny, Ireland, for a week already, installing his exhibition at the Butler Gallery in the Castle and at various sites around town, including the evocative-sounding Bishop’s Robing Room, at Saint Canice’s Cathedral. It was all part of the opening weekend festivities for the latest edition of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, a generous mixture of art, theater, dance, literature, and other sundry modes of culture.
“It’s serious fun,” Smith said. He also said, more than once, to various people, that “it’s about art, not the artists,” but of course it’s him that everyone wanted to meet. In his trademark hat and highly colorful shirt and jacket (one red-patterned, the other a lurid green), he stood out from the crowd, who were dressed according to their various tribes. One of the pleasures of a festival opening is the different groups who flock in. There are the tweedy writers, deliberately edgy theater people, grungy musicians, and the art crowd—mainly dressed in black.
It made it difficult to know who to sidle up to: A. C. Grayling, the celebrated humanist philosopher was under one tree, but Iarla Ó Lionáird was under another, talking to Matthew Nolan, one of the Festival’s music curators. Ó Lionáird is Ireland’s leading sean nós singer, and the emotion he can wrench from a single note would raise the hairs on the back of your neck. I was just heading over to gush like a true fan when the speeches started.
Ahh, the speeches. Does anyone actually relish the things? Even, I suspect, the funders, politicians, and other dignitaries could do without them. And as this was the festival’s fortieth birthday (it’s Ireland’s oldest arts festival), there was a great deal to be gone through. I became concerned that they might go into every single year in detail. “Not as interesting as the Ladies of Llangollen,” visual arts curator Josephine Kelliher whispered in my ear, as I muttered about too much history. Who they? I wondered. “Eleanor Butler was daughter of one of the denizens of the Dower House,” Kelliher told me. She ran off to Wales with her “friend” Sarah Ponsonby in 1780, where their lifestyle was so unconventional they were visited by Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and the Duke of Wellington. “They had their early meetings in this garden,” she added.
A round of clapping brought us back to the present, and a shriek of delight as Dash McCarthy, age four and a half (the half is very important), spotted that Smith was wearing the same hat as him. Happy to be wrested from a stream of photo ops with the be-suited great and good, the pair posed for the cameras. McCarthy is the son of artist Fergal McCarthy, who was taking in Kilkenny en route to Drogheda, where his own art project, Welcome to Drogheda, was to kick off the next day. He’ll live in a tent for a week in the Highlanes Gallery, but as he had previously lived in a tent on an artificial island, in Dublin’s River Liffey, for No Man’s Land, 2011, the gallery may seem quite tame in comparison.
Left: Michael Holly and Helena Tobin from Artist Collective Siteations. Right: Cian O'Sullivan, Richard Forrest, and Ana Zajickova. (Photos: Roland Paschoff)
The garden party segued into the opening of Angela O’Kelly’s Costume, at the Crafts Council—Kilkenny is the capital of craft in Ireland—and Niamh Lunny, head of costume at the Abbey Theatre, told the assembled crowd how to get an actor out of all their clothes in twenty seconds flat. “The secret’s in the hidden elastic,” she said. It was unclear whether that advice would be called on later, as people trooped off to their various plays, concerts, and readings, to reconvene in the small hours at the Home Rule Club, where festival director Rosemary Collier appeared to have boundless reserves of energy. Gossip was swapped, shows discussed. There had been sightings of former British prime minister Gordon Brown having dinner; and everyone bought, probably at this stage unnecessary, drinks for everyone else. It all felt marvelous.
Naturally, given the lateness of the night, it felt far less marvelous the next day as we assembled for Smith’s official opening, which included a walking tour of the various spaces in which his work is sited. Leading the group like a Pied Piper, Smith’s enthusiasm and intelligence were infectious, and, stepping back, it almost felt as if we were being inducted into the Cult of Bob. Claire Power and Rayne Booth from the Temple Bar Gallery were there to join, and curator Pádraic E. Moore put his finger on it when he said, “He’s really generous, that’s what it is.”
Up at the Robing Room, Nigella Keane was dressed as German émigré theorist Hannah Arendt. Smith is encouraging people to “Be Hannah Arendt” for the duration of the project. Why? Because the woman who coined the term “the banality of evil” after the Second World War also wanted people to think, and speak up for themselves; and, as Smith said, that’s key to what he’s trying to do too. I wondered if it would catch on, but by evening I saw a man and his daughter, both dressed in Arendt hats and pearls, watching an archive interview with her, and talking about personal responsibility, life, the universe, and everything.
Left: Curator Pádraic E. Moore. Right: Artist Cora Cummins and Jason Oakley from Visual Artists Ireland.
At the Butler Gallery, director Anna O’Sullivan, who cocurated Smith’s project with Kelliher, was telling people that the sign ART GALLERY CLOSED SUNDAY MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY ADMISSION Ł17.50 was actually part of the exhibition, and that you didn’t have to pay to come in. Guardian sportswriter Steve Bierley arrived with his wife, the poet Mary O’Malley. Bierley had inspired one of the artworks in the exhibition when, in 2008, as part of a Guardian job swap, he had been sent to write about Louise Bourgeois. (The newspaper had also sent its art critics to cover sport.) “Watch sport and you think about sport. Observe art and you discover yourself,” Bierley had written, before concluding: “This woman is deeply dangerous.” “The best writing about art I have read for a long time,” was Smith’s response. The pair have been friends ever since.
Later, in conversation at the Hole in the Wall, Smith got O’Sullivan to speak about her own work with Louise Bourgeois, and her time as a performance artist in New York in the 1980s. She’d gone, like so many people, to see the work of artists she’d admired, in person. A job at Franklin Furnace, with a Sunday night performance slot, followed. Franklin Furnace was “low key and funky, and that took away the awe,” O’Sullivan said, of meeting her heroes. But performance art seldom pays the rent, so she told us how she went on to work at Robert Miller Gallery, first as a registrar, later as a director. “Bourgeois suffered terribly with insomnia,” remembered O’Sullivan, “so she’d draw through the night, and every day scores of incredible drawings would come in.” The pair got to know each other, and she told the rapt crowd about Bourgeois’s house, which hadn’t been repainted for years. “All her phone numbers were handwritten on the walls, and I remember coming in one day and Bono and the Edge were sitting at her kitchen table, singing to her.” When O’Sullivan came back to Ireland, Bourgeois sent her a print every Christmas, and also donated $5,000 to the Butler Gallery, which went toward re-rendering the walls. “So I benefitted, right?” said Bob.
Whatever about Bourgeois, Moore was right, Bob’s very generous, and the stories he drew out of O’Sullivan, fascinating. It comes through in his work, and in the general atmosphere of a wonderfully arty weekend in Kilkenny.
Left: Nigella Keane as Hannah Arendt. (Photo: Roland Paschoff) Right: Butler Gallery director Anna O'Sullivan.
A SHINKANSEN FROM TOKYO TO NAGOYA, the fourth-largest city in Japan and the capital of the Aichi Prefecture, speeds along at 200 mph for nearly ninety minutes southwest, briskly passing houses, factories, and fields. As your eyes lose focus, the view transforms into broad basics: horizons, striations, and soft earth. Landscape, abstraction, landscape, abstraction.
The Friday before last, Nagoya was hosting the opening of the Second Aichi Triennale, a sprawling, multisite festival spread over traditional exhibition spaces as well as a former bowling alley, a train station, a dusty department store, a parking spot, and an underground shopping mall. Its title, “Awakening – Where Are We Standing? – Earth, Memory and Resurrection,” alludes to the heavy weight the event shoulders as the first big art show in Japan to be planned since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. When I ask for the meaning of the title in Japanese, our translator says “yureru,” which translates as “to shake.” “It’s more like shivering,” she adds. And I wonder: Maybe it’s closer to the chill we’re all feeling, in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave, as ceaseless news reports disclose details on the hundreds of tons of highly contaminated radioactive water still flowing into the Pacific from the Fukushima Daiichi plant (some 300 tons had leaked by August 20, according to the Associated Press).
Left: Artist Song Dong. Right: Aichi Triennale curator Lewis Biggs.
The opening weekend is hazy and steamy; my weather app says it’s 100 degrees. According to our faithful translator, it’s the warmest August in one thousand years, and an Aichi Triennale curator hands out salt candies. We’re in Choja-machi, a business district once renowned for its flourishing textile stores and factories, and one of the sites of the triennial in Nagoya. (The nearby city Toyota was likewise celebrated for its automatic looms and textile mills, before the cars.) Today, in the absence of those shops, many of which were made redundant in the face of globalization, vacant buildings are being used to exhibit art, such as Yoshitomo Nara’s spirited collaboration with friends, the collective the We-Lows, in a garage that they transformed into a café space and small gallery. I ask if they have one of Nara’s “No Nukes” posters, an image often seen at antinuclear protests, but sadly there are none here for us. “People make their own,” says our guide.
The triennial’s artistic director, Taro Igarashi, was selected in part because of his personal experience with the disaster: His architectural laboratory at the Tōhoku University Graduate School of Engineering was destroyed. Working with four curators—Lewis Biggs, Fumihiko Sumitomo, Shihoko Iida, and Masahiko Haito—Igarashi selected seventy-six artists and groups for the show, 50 percent of whom are from Japan. Many of these artists are presenting works in response to the disaster, including the Rias Ark Museum of Art’s Great East Japan Earthquake Archives. There are also a number of site-specific pieces, such as Katsuhiro Miyamoto’s installation in blue and yellow tape bandaging the floors and walls of the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, a transposition of the blueprint of the Fukushima power plant in a 1:1 scale. “The size of the Aichi complex, one of the largest art centers in Japan, is nearly the same size as the plant,” says Aichi Triennale community designer Hiroko Kikuchi as we tour the show. The work allows a “more physical understanding of the disaster.” And then I remember: This weekend marks the sixty-eighth anniversary of the atomic attack on Nagasaki.
While some of the selected pieces that are not explicitly about Japan are linked in overly obvious ways (see Mitch Epstein’s “American Power” photographs), others invoke little-known and obscure stories. Cornelia Parker’s Perpetual Canon, 2004, a ring of flattened instruments, was chosen, according to Biggs, “because of a school that lost all its instruments after the disaster.” He continues: “If instruments are people’s voice, and if the instruments are crushed, then there is no voice.”
Indeed, the festival is geared to the Aichi community, so much so that most of the works on view in Choja-machi were selected via a curatorial competition, granting locals the chance to vote. Later that day, on the bus to another hub of sites in Okazaki, Biggs (a former artistic director of the Liverpool Biennial) argues, “Art becomes generalized when it is good. We hope we’ve chosen good art about human loss and tragedy.” This leaves some of us perplexed, but we hold our tongues and decide to wait and see how the idea plays out in the event.
Okazaki is about an hour away from Nagoya, and it is mostly known today for companies that recycle old clothing into felt for lining new cars by Toyota. We arrive at a 1980s-era Cibco department store, currently being renovated, and are told that the art is on the vacant and decaying floors. “It’s like time stopped,” says our translator as we climb the stairs. “This store is so old, it feels like something from twenty years ago.” We’re a long way from Tokyo, “the capital of the future,” according to the government’s campaign for the 2020 Olympics, but not that far. On one floor, we encounter Tomoko Mukaiyama and Jean Kalman’s performance installation Falling, a theatrical, postapocalyptic tableau involving stage lights and a smoke machine (and a man buried to the top of his head in crumpled newspaper). I follow a pair of young girls in plastic animal masks around the work, not sure if they are part of it.
Left: Aichi Triennale curator Shihoko Iida and artist Richard Wilson. Right: Aichi Triennale curator Yuri Yoshida and artist Wit Pimkanchanapong.
That evening we attend the packed opening ceremony at the Aichi Prefectural Museum, a lively engagement that seems to have nothing to do with the ways human beings bring disasters upon themselves. The event seems especially crowded because it’s around the time of Obon, not a “public holiday” but three days that some take off from work in order to honor ancestral spirits and return home. There are numerous speeches by government officials and the show’s organizers. As the mostly rapt audience listens to the orations, a few people indulge in a glass of warm white wine. At the end, some silver streamers spurt at the crowd.
The following day, while making another art pilgrimage to visit the Chichu Art Museum on Naoshima Island (which is now participating in the sprawling 2013 Setouchi Triennale on isles in the Seto Inland Sea), I’m particularly drawn to Time/Timeless/No Time, 2004, by the late Walter De Maria. I recall that he once proclaimed, “Every good work should have at least ten meanings.” The ambiguity and allure of this statement, considered in step with Biggs’s earlier and perplexing dictum that art becomes generalized when it is “good,” seems to feel right. The best works in the Aichi Triennale, teeming with atmospheres and ambiances, certainly have more than ten meanings, and all were generated from moments of despair—a universal feeling if ever there was one.
“YOU SEE THAT?” my taxi driver Vasili asks, pointing out a piece of Samian mountain-road graffiti. BORDERS ARE SCARS ON THE PLANET’S BODY. Indeed, borders are on everyone’s minds at this time of year in Samos, a little Greek island in the Aegean separated from Turkey by the narrow Mycale strait. With only 2,500 feet between the two countries at the closest point, the strait’s currents form a natural division between Europe and Asia, and every August, in the city’s ancient port of Pythagorio, this border is affirmed with a reenactment of the 1824 battle between the Ottomans and the Samians, who gained semiautonomy from the Empire in 1834.
“Greece’s history seems to be composed of battles against the odds,” mused dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, as we were told the story on the roof of Samos’s only contemporary art space, Art Space Pythagorion, founded last year by Dr. Kurt Schwarz and Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz. A motley crew––including Florence Derieux, director at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in Reims and Meriç Özgünes of the Greek League for Human Rights––had gathered to watch the commemoration of this historical 1824 battle. It was a veritable spectacle: A chain of boats paraded around Pythagorio’s harbor accompanied by dramatic music, loudspeakers piped the booming narrative, and fireworks reached higher and higher into the sky until the event’s climax. “A lot of fireworks for a small island,” someone said. “But better fireworks than bombs.”
And better love than war, as “Long Legged Linguistics,” ASP’s summer offering by Slavs and Tatars, seems to suggest. Presented in collaboration with Gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, and marking the latest installment in a cycle of works the artists call “The Faculty of Substitution,” it was the reason we were all here. To explore the mingling of linguistics and politics through an examination of the Turkic language and a view toward language as a source of political, metaphysical, and sexual emancipation. To this end, there are sculptures that include a giant tongue wrapped around a stripper’s pole (Tongue Twist Her), and a number of books skewered by a long blade (Kitab Kebab). The latter was the only work whose title the artists translated into Greek (Biblio-Souvlaki), and it reminded us that Greek contains words that originated in Turkey, a result of some four hundred years of Ottoman rule. As the artists noted, Samos’s proximity to Turkey, a nation with “one of the most successful cases of language conversions in the world,” holds particular relevance to “Long Legged Lingustics.” (Famously, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk latinized Turkish in 1928 because Arabic script couldn’t accommodate the language, and certain “Turkish” sounds were lost in the process.)
In many ways, just as Slavs and Tatars view their publications as the “real” artworks, the Samos exhibition was a pretext for intentional discussion, which flowed as easily as the island’s chilled white wine. The problem of the Turkic languages, for example, was encapsulated in a series of covers from the satirical Azeri publication Molla Nasreddin (1906–1930), projected onto the ASP building during a Slavs and Tatars lecture delivered on the exhibition’s opening night over drinks and hors d’œuvres. We were told how Molla Nasreddin was read all over the Muslim world, and many of the covers depicted three historic versions of the Turkic script (Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic). The publication was named after a popular Sufi sage–cum-fool of the Middle Ages, and earlier that day during an exhibition tour, ASP chief curator Marina Fokidis noted how “Molla Nasreddin” was also known in Greece as “Nasreddin Hodja,” a connection that attests to the long-term, historical relationship between Greece and Turkey. Much later that night (or what is known in Greece as “dinner time”), the discussions continued, with Xombli cofounder Nicholas Yatromanolakis pointing out how Greece also underwent its own process of language conversion in the twentieth century.
Left: Art Space Pythagorion assistant curators Elisavet Mandoulidou and Yannis Arvanitis. Right: Fivos Sakalis, Anna Wichmann, Kimberly Bradley, and Payam Sharifi during a tour of “Long Legged Linguistics.”
Debates remained jovial, even hopeful, among this eclectic group of art-world aficionados—which was as diverse as the ancient site of Ephesus, only three hours by boat and bus via Kusadasi, Turkey (and the only place in the world where taking one’s passport is somehow “legal”). During the Q&A session of a panel held on the occasion of the show, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz reflected on the separation enacted when a language is standardized or nationalized, reminding us of the inherent tie the spoken word––the utterance––has to personal relationships. She was responding to discussions among artist Payam Sharifi (the Tatar?), Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz, and scholars Ilker Aytürk and Konstantinos Tsitselikis, each of who argued that the instrumentalization of language for nation building was a homogenizing force—after all, standardization is achieved at the expense of less-favored dialects. As Tsitselikis explained, the entire Mediterranean region was once a multilingual, multicultural and relatively harmonious place: “There were Armenians, Turks, Greeks. Even Slavs and Tatars.”
This kind of interpersonal relation extended into events that took place after the exhibition opening, including a tour of the island by archaeologist Irene Haralambakis. We visited the largest temple in the ancient world dedicated to the female goddess of fertility, Hera, and the incredible Tunnel of Eupalinos, a three-thousand-foot-long underground aqueduct system designed in the sixth century BC, built with teams of diggers who started from either side of Samos’s Mount Kastro with the intention of meeting in the middle. (They were only one meter off in their rendezvous, apparently.) The idea of digging blindly from either side of a mountain to (almost) come together makes for a neat allegory for the kind of off-center reconciliation or mutual discovery that seems at the heart of Slavs and Tatars’s project.
In fact, on Samos, there were plenty of object lessons for “Long Legged Linguistics.” Christian Schwarm, one of the founders of Independent Collectors, observed an absurd juxtaposition looking out the landscape window of Art Space Pythagorion: “a holiday foreground” with bathers on the beach outside and “a political background” with Turkey, so close yet so far. (There were also plenty of occasions to reflect on Greece’s six-year struggle with austerity—and the Eurozone crisis in general.) But even in the most challenging periods in this ancient island’s history, Samos was, as Haralambakis put it, “a happening place.” As we looked out over the sea toward the coast of Asia Minor, she added: “And it always will be.”
Left: Scholar Konstantinos Tsitselikis. Right: The Tsitselikis children with Lupo.
“ASPEN IS A SMALL CITY. Denver is a large town.” Susan Marx, Aspen Art Museum board member and full-time resident of the Colorado idyll, clued me into this pearl of an aphorism, which, while smacking of high altitude elitism, rings true. Indeed, is there anywhere else in America with such a disproportionate concentration of wealth streaming so much of its assets into art?
Naturally, the apple of Aspen’s eye is its aforementioned contemporary art museum, which is halfway through construction of a new Shigeru Ban–designed home in the center of town. When the building opens in one year, exhibition space will increase four times over. This is no small undertaking for the institution, whose international profile has long since eclipsed its facilities. So, as midsummer traffic and humidity have turned the Hamptons into hell, along comes ArtCrush, the cosmopolitan hamlet’s own jet-set art weekend, which raised $2.1 million for the museum.
With a packed agenda of thematic events like ArtCrush, WineCrush, and the less sensually named soirees PreviewCrush and AfterPartyCrush, one wonders about the origin of the Crush brand. Does it refer to grapes? Is it an allusion to the artist-dealer-collector love triangle? Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, AAM’s CEO and director—famous for being positively killer at her job, but also for boldly shushing the rooms in which she speaks—illuminated that indeed both are true: “When I came on board I wanted to honor that our summer benefit had always been about wine, and we also like the idea that a crush is something you really like. It’s fun, and seductive, and nondangerous but electrifying… we call this whole week ‘crushing.’ ” And so it began.
Wednesday night was WineCrush, surely one of the world’s most exquisite pre-gaming sessions, held at the home of host/hostess virtuosos John and Amy Phelan. Attendees included high-ranking art worlders like Joel Wachs, Lisa Dennison, Toby Devan Lewis, and Dan Cameron; local bigwigs like the Marxes and Magoons; and the majority of the UCLA Hammer’s curatorial and development staffs. “There are eight of us here! We’re descending!” crowed the Hammer’s director, Annie Philbin, with a tinge of alpine euphoria. “This really is the epicenter of the art world this weekend.”
Nine wine tastings into dinner, guests slid back their Lucite bamboo chairs and made for the dance floor, which was surprisingly turned up given the distinguished crowd. Richard Edwards, proprietor of Baldwin Gallery (where the auction preview PreviewCrush took place the following evening) must have noticed my eyebrows arching at the scene, when he offered Matthew Ritchie’s assessment of a previous WineCrush witching hour: “I’ve never seen a billionaire conga line before.”
With Thursday came afternoon rain and profuse apologies from the entire citizenry of Aspen. Normally every day is perfect! they cried. Feeling cheated, crushers convened at a member’s club near the base of the ski mountain for a luncheon and discussion between Zuckerman Jacobson and ArtCrush’s artist honoree, Teresita Fernández. A frank and lucid dialogue about her practice gave way to questions from the audience. Fernández on the topic of domestic versus institutional commissions: “We live in a world of art fairs. And I decided a long time ago that I’m okay with art fairs—as long as I can also make big things that don’t fit in anyone’s house.”
Left: Lance Armstrong. Right: Sotheby's Lisa Dennison (right).
By Friday a tent city had popped up on the hill just above Main Street, where ArtCrush was to be held on the grounds of the Aspen Art Museum’s original building. Guests entered over the lightly flowing waters of the Roaring Fork River, into an above average silent auction with works by artists like Nick Mauss, Taryn Simon, Thea Djordjadze, and Cory Arcangel. On one side of the tent was a comprehensive spectrum of fine wines from around the world, majestically arranged like the pipes of a church organ, being poured on the advice of a squadron of sommeliers.
Primed for a square meal (and some art bidding), all cats were herded into the big top for the main event. DJ Amy Phelan left her seat at the start of the live auction to cue the Top 40 tracks she and Zuckerman Jacobson paired with each piece of art’s strut onto center stage. The penultimate lot was a graphite drawing of a plant by Ellsworth Kelly, escorted to the tunes of Daft Punk, I think, after which the most apt song of all introduced Fernández’s sculpture: “I don’t care, I love it!” Icona Pop sang as donors doubled the work’s estimate.
Outside, a line formed for the golf carts that would ferry heels and satin trains over the pebbly incline that led to AfterPartyCrush, but more intrepid guests instead bushwhacked their way through the park. Aspen’s rigid light pollution restrictions kept us all in the dark, however: “This feels more like The Blair Witch Project than the John Denver Sanctuary!” Safe inside the club, the Dom and Fiji flowed like water, as seems to be the norm in Aspen. But as extravagant and exceptional as the art ecosystem is here, one is always reminded that it’s also distinctly homegrown.
Left: Teresita Fernández and dealer David Maupin. Right: Soledad Hurst, Dzine, dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Robert Hurst.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW LUCKY YOU ARE? I’m eighty years old—I could die at any moment,” bellowed Joan Rivers to a crowd of five thousand during the 2013 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. “Never mind all this shitty comedy. You’d be invited to dinner for the rest of your lives: ‘You were there?!’”
Well, no such luck. If there was a whiff of death, it’s because Rivers killed onstage, crawling around in a royal purple sequin robe as she attacked celebrities, derided her aging body and mind, and invoked a range of ethnic slurs with refreshing equanimity (“everybody’s something, calm down already”). Three hours later, Sarah Silverman echoed the elder performer’s incongruous presence in the same regal theater, “Home to opera, ballet, the symphony, and now, pussy jokes.”
I came up for the final four nights of the nearly three-week fest, where each evening hundreds of agents, managers, bookers, and comics flocculated amid touristy crowds at the multitiered Place des Arts, the heart of the outdoor, public portion of JFL. The real industry warriors headed east toward the seedier end of Rue Ste. Catherine, filled with strippers, vagabonds, and bachelorettes, en route to comedy shows at bars, black boxes, nightclubs, and even arenas. (It was a star-studded Just For Laughs.)
The festival organizers succeeded in booking many of comedy’s most relevant players, like Tig Notaro, whose boldly head-on set about a series of personal tragedies, performed last fall at Largo in Los Angeles, was heavily promoted by both NPR and Louis C.K. “I had bilateral breast cancer. I’m sure none of you have heard about that,” Notaro sarcasted in Montreal. “Before I had cancer, I made so many jokes about being flat-chested. And I started to think when I was going through recovery, maybe my boobs overheard me, and they were just finally like, we’re sick of this. Let’s kill her.” In response to the audience’s applause break Notaro teased: “That’s right, clap it up. That’s like on Facebook when you’re liking sad news. ‘Love it. Wonderful. What else you got?’ ”
“Comedy is an elusive target,” argued Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz as he accepted his award for Comedy Writer of the Year. More often than not, this summer’s lineup hit the mark. Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, and John Mulaney blew me away with their masterful storytelling, while others, such as Brent Weinbach, Maria Bamford, and Bo Burnham, unveiled more unusual plays on the form. During his hour-long solo performance “What?,” Burnham read poetry, shot at a unicorn, argued with backing tracks, and crooned about the death of art.
The twin, seemingly evergreen subjects of rape and race were omnipresent, sometimes hackly managed, but occasionally innovatively wrangled. Lynne Koplitz’s line of defense against an attacker: “What are you gonna do, rape me? It can’t happen. I’ll kiss you on the lips. I’m gonna love the rape right out of you. Now you’re my boyfriend.” An amped-up crowd cheered the newly jacked Dave Chappelle, back on tour after a decadelong hiatus, as he defiantly lit cigarette after cigarette. “Yeah, it’s fun to smoke inside, it really is. This is like bizarro America. It’s the opposite of America— it’s a room full of white people watching a black person do some shit that they can’t do.”
In addition to stand-up and the occasional improv session, the fest was filled with ample panels, podcast tapings, and other events in the conference rooms of the Hyatt hotel, including Andy Kindler’s State of the Industry Address, his annual takedown of the things he deems overhyped, from social media (“Hey Vine, your six seconds are up”) to Eddie Izzard (“PreeeeeeeTENtious!”). Like Colin Quinn during his keynote at JFL, Kindler also defended a comedian’s right to free speech, with an essential caveat: “If you’re funny, you can say anything. If you’re not, you’re a bigot and a racist,” adding a jab at the popular podcaster and former The Man Show host: “Adam Carolla is like Hitler, if Hitler wasn’t funny.” (“He’s a fucking pile of shit!” yelled comic Todd Glass from the audience. “I don’t know why no one else is talking about it.”)
“I wish I could do the opposite of the Andy Kindler speech and just talk about how great everybody is,” said Amy Poehler during her acceptance speech for Comedy Person of the Year. “I wanted to pitch that I stand next to him and just go: ‘Come on, everybody’s working so hard! Give ‘em a break!’ ” The comedian gave gratitude to the festival organizers (“Thank you Montreal, you guys are such an elite class of weirdos,”) presenters Silverman and soon-to-be Late Night host Seth Myers, and winners Hurwitz, Michael Cera (Best Comedic Short Film), Edgar Wright (Comedy Director of the Year), and her new beau, Breakout Comedy Star of the Year Nick Kroll. “Thank you to Nick who is the funniest. I am very sexually attracted to you.”
The dirty little secret of the comedy world is that most people in it work incredibly hard. “It ain’t easy making things look breezy,” said Wright. And yet comedians carry on with the worthwhile pursuit of finding the funny and lightening our collective loads. As Notaro revealed during her show, a single headline from The Onion carried her through an extraordinary rough patch (“SEAGULL WITH DIARRHEA JUST BARELY MAKES IT TO CROWDED BEACH ON TIME”). Just for Laughs gives comedians a chance to share their work and secure the deals that make it possible to make more (the Hyatt lounge at 3 AM is a petri dish for future industry collaborations). It also allows them to simply let loose and celebrate each other. As Ron Funches put it: “I feel like I don't need to eat or sleep while I’m here. I’m just happy.”
SHOWING UP TO A PARTY at all is in itself a gesture of deference in Los Angeles, where La Cienega Boulevard may as well be the International Date Line. The weekend before last saw a host of events, literally traversing one end of the city to the other, so many plot points on an itinerary of party-hopping endurance that gave us just enough to mull over for a few sleepy weeks in August before the art scene springs to life again amid back-to-school jitters.
Saturday 5:20 PM: Chinatown. Chung King Road
“It seems we have a question here in the front row. What is performance art?” Jamie McMurry, one of the main administrators of the fifth iteration of Perform Chinatown and ad hoc emcee on the main stage, repeats the question: “What. Is. Performance. Art.” He sidles up close to the microphone and clears his throat grandly, then clears it again, and a few times more. This goes on for about thirty seconds. He smiles at the uncomprehending woman. “There’s your answer.”
Among the early lingerers at this event, where nearly thirty artists stage various durational and ephemeral performances, is a sizable population of confused tourists for whom the title ostensibly evoked some sort of public-radio-sponsored, family-friendly event. But the artists seem less intent on bringing the uninitiated masses into the fold, and more intent on blowing minds. Some performances are taking place in open air, others on a stage, still others in black or white wooden boxes acting as frames, and all are happening at once. Smells from three different performances—involving onions, whiskey, and mayonnaise, respectively—mix in the fragrant summer air. People whisper into cell phones, hold their noses, and cover their children’s eyes as they pick their way through this gauntlet of avant-garde expression. We all step gingerly over a naked Kate Gilbert, whose Two Less Things to Worry About (Lucy Returns) obstructs one of the walkways. Still, many stand politely with chin in hands, dutifully evincing stony apprehension.
A stray paper airplane, printed with the image of a twenty-dollar bill, and very much on fire, flies further than expected from Vasan Sitthiket’s politically charged performance (visual elements in play include: a camouflage-print suit and tie, a globe, a helpmate in an Anonymous mask painted with the American flag, aforementioned fake currency) on the main stage, and nearly lands in my hair. “Sorry!” he calls out from the platform.
8:15 PM: West Hollywood. Kayne Griffin Corcoran Gallery
We ride the slipstream behind rush hour traffic to arrive just in time for David Lamelas and Daniel Knorr’s openings at Kayne Griffin Corcoran’s impressive new space on South La Brea Avenue. Even the grass is soigné, cut at sleek, measured angles. Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti is parked by a galvanized steel ice bucket, handing out beers. In contrast with the anarchic scene we’d left behind, the modulated volume of conversation, coupled with a few well-behaved children traipsing around Lamelas’s Signaling of Three Objects installation in the courtyard, signals something approximating an eighteenth-century French manor.
In the south gallery, Lamelas chats convivially with Paul Sietsema. They pose politely for a snap. “Isn’t it wonderful?” Lamelas asks. “The intimacy the camera creates? I don’t really know this man, you know, but we’re getting on pretty well, and this picture, it... I mean, this could be the most important meeting of our lives!” In the main gallery, Daniel Knorr is flanked by Liz Goldwyn and actress Jena Malone. His acid-hued resin casts of Los Angeles potholes literally pop out of the wall. I like the way they fuse the twin notions of city streets and art itself as agents of social movement that often circumscribe one another: distance, level of acquaintanceship with the artist, time, and parking prospects are all factors in deciding if an Angeleno is going to leave the house on any given day in order to go look at art. For their part, the potholes seem to be enjoying the change of view immensely.
In KGC’s permanent James Turrell skyspace, Warren Niesluchowski and Belgian philosopher Thierry de Duve are sipping Heinekens, leaning forward in the chairs Turrell designed specifically for leaning back. Niesluchowski, in the spirit of one who has spent many years perfecting the art of being a guest, is sanguine, and he shifts the conversation to suit every sly change in the room’s color. Of Turrell’s work in general he notes, “I haven’t taken acid in forty years, but that’s where it takes me back to.”
9:45 PM: West Hollywood. Chateau Marmont
After some hushed conferences comparing routes, most of the Corcoran crowd has migrated to a private room at the back of the Bar Marmont. Cocktail waitresses dart furtively in and out of the dim, amber-lit space, ushering in mixed-up drink orders, while guests assemble little plates of cured meats and cheeses from a platter of charcuterie in the corner. The varieties are impossible to differentiate in the dark. Lamelas is holding court on the patio, making sure everyone’s glass is full.
11:00 PM: Chinatown. Human Resources
Back in Chinatown, strong in spirit but weak in body, the Perform Chinatown Afterparty/Human Resources Benefit is going full blast. Lights are flashing, people are dancing, and the bar line is nearly out the door. A friend emerges from the crowd, double-fisting two red Solo cups, and hands me the one that happens to be full of pure gin.
Sunday 1:00 AM
In Human Resources’ upstairs room, the Big Conversation Space perform The Tarot of Chance, a series of unconventional card readings appropriate to the unconventional setting. The group’s principal members, Niki Korth and Clémence de Montgolfier, have been at it all evening without losing a trace of composure. Conversation is their medium, and they are wielding the hell out of it; it’s like a more intimate version of Tino Sehgal’s This Progress, but with a punk flourish and zero hired actors. Over the din of artist Dawn Kasper’s DJ set below, there are audible snippets from the reading of the woman in front of me. The phrase “soul mate” is repeated several times. When she finally gets up, pushes her chair back and walks away, there are tears in her eyes.
Once situated, Niki explains to me that this is not a traditional tarot, and my first task is to formulate a question to send out into The Great Beyond. She picks up the receiver on the Model 500 rotary phone on the table, tracing the number to the Great Beyond (area code 818?) with her finger. “Yes hello... we want to know what is success? Ah... yes... thank you.” The resulting cards form a curious sequence—the megaphone, the artist, the philosopher, the hacker—but there is a Narcissister/A. L. Steiner video piece being projected nearby, and it’s hard to focus with those bronzed curves freakishly bouncing around the screen…
Sunday 5:45 PM: Venice Beach. Home of Thaddeus Stauber and Tracy O’Brien
“I hate being called a Pop artist, it’s such a fucking burden!” British Pop artist Derek Boshier exclaims. “And I’ve just handed out all my cards. I hope no one from the Guggenheim walks in.” After a few hours’ rest and only one minor squabble about GPS settings, we arrive at the chic private residence acting as the site of Night Gallery’s pop-up show “Sunburn.” Christine Wang’s giant 2013 Dandelions painting banners the facade, making every other perfectly charming house on the block look like a hamlet of driftwood shanties. Friends and collectors mill around, taking care not to bump into any of the work in the decidedly lived-in space.
Upstairs, Boshier’s 2004 Hanky Panky converses with the fleshy rosas of Christine Wang’s lewd-crude Flashe paintings on found pet X-rays, which in turn echo the pink, painted-wood bunk beds in the adjacent room. I think of the children. “We didn’t want to neuter anything,” Night Gallery director Mieke Marple explains. “The idea is to bring a little bit of S&M to Venice Beach.” Before heading out into the sunset, Boshier offers a final word. “You know, Eduardo Paolozzi once told me, ‘This is how you get on in the art world: You pick an icon, and paint only that for the rest of your life. That’s how you do it,’ he said. ‘...But you better not fucking do it!’ ”
Repeating the same action for hours on end? Sounds like a performance.
SAN FRANCISCO HAS NEVER struck me as a hotbed of artistic conservatism, but this axiom surfaced over and over again at the fete celebrating Norman and Norah Stone’s biannual rotation of their collection at Stonescape, housed in a bright, white cave tucked into a voluptuous hill in Calistoga, California.
“Everything that comes to San Francisco dies,” whispered someone as we stood inside the cool cavern. “The city is ruled over by the same five families that all live within blocks of each other—old money, old art. We need the Stones.”
The Stones are a famously zany San Francisco couple with a collection seen as at once sexy and politically astute, which makes them a sort of paragon of artistic radicality in Northern California. Their collection rests on an empire based on positive thinking. Norman’s father, a textbook Horatio Alger, began hawking newspapers on the streets of Chicago in the 1920s before selling insurance door-to-door. Decades later, his company was worth billions and he had written three books about the power of optimism. He then became a primary financial backer of both Richard Nixon’s presidential campaigns. His son, however, whom I encountered flipping through vinyl records at a heavy wood table set up like a DJ booth (Theaster Gates’s Listening Station), took a slightly different route.
“Vietnam—it changed everything. I was working at a private equity firm with war-related investments—I couldn’t do it anymore,” said the septuagenarian, sporting a flowing paisley shirt and long beaded necklace. “I quit and went back to art school. But you see, I’m a people-pleaser, which is not a good thing for that line of work. So I decided to become a psychologist.”
As waiters in white urged guests—Josephine Pryde, James Turrell, Leigh Ledare, Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum, curator and former Jumex Collection director Abaseh Mirvali, and Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, among others—to please join for dinner, I came upon advisers Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner, who have worked with the Stones for the past twenty-five years.
“It all began with a work by John Baldessari,” said Westreich with élan. “We knew it was the right work because it was conceptually profound, but more so, because it was provocative on so many levels.”
Wagner smiled at his wife. “Doors get knocked down with those guys,” he remarked. “They are oblivious to what their neighbors think; they dress the way they want to dress, buy art nobody else here does. They’re very democratic, which is one thing in New York but another in Pacific Heights. The city might seem liberal, but the money is conservative.”
At dinner, two art students debated terms more generally associated with historic San Francisco with LA MoCA board chair Clifford Einstein and his wife Mandy. “A beatnik is a more serious individual. Poets. Lived in places with friends. A hippie is like a nouveau burner,” argued Clifford.
“So, a beatnik is basically like a hipster?” asked a student with a goatee. At which point Norah picked up a microphone and invited the two hundred attendees to gather under the Turrell pavilion for a performance by Theaster Gates and his band, the Black Monks of Mississippi.
“The relationship between collectors and artists is sometimes about objects but a lot of times about friendship,” said Gates before beginning his forty-minute set. “What we will sing tonight is a reflection on race, on humanness. This one is called ‘The Glorious People.’ ”
“To kill a man in a hood . . . the sun and the moon, they both were there,” Gates began. It was guttural music. The light became electric yellow, turning a woman’s neon orange platforms a pale white. A man with a cello leapt from his seat, hoisting his instrument over his body and plowing into its thickest strings as the light went blood red. Gates was roaring then, and the Turrell had turned a fierce shade of blue.
The music broke. For a moment everything was still, until a man in the audience began to howl and the crowd broke into shrieks. The musicians left. They did not bow. There was no encore. That same night hundreds of thousands across America had taken to the streets, protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman and honoring the death of Trayvon Martin.
“Now that is the way music is supposed to be—a lament to our time,” remarked a museum director matter-of-factly. His comment hit uncomfortably on the dicey relationship between artist and collector, the way visibility cages its maker behind a looking glass. It was fitting, I thought, that the Stones’ fourth exhibition is about portraiture. “Revealed,” they’ve called it.
In the distance, a sharp black-and-white mural by Rirkrit Tiravanija was visible from the glass doors of the art cave. The moon was almost full. You could see the faces of so many protesters, which Tiravanija had selected from newspapers and instructed students to draw across the walls. I wandered past a grove of ancient redwoods back up to the space. Inside, San Francisco collector Abigail Turin and her husband, SF MoMA board member Jonathan Gans, stood next to a circle of Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale chairs.
“They’ve completely changed the direction of our collection—they take risks no one else will,” said Gans.
Behind the couple was a remarkable Anne Collier photograph of a single blue eye, staring unflinchingly from its frame.
“I have never seen one like this,” said Turin. “The Stones find the best works.”
As they departed, I spotted Norah standing alone, most of her guests now splashing about in the Turrell-designed pool. A black fur was pulled around her shoulders—in the Napa Valley, temperatures can sink by forty degrees after sunset—and she was taking in a Ryan Gander photograph of a nude young woman with soft, full curves.
“Thea nearly fell to her knees when she saw it. And Norman, he didn’t even think about it, he just said yes,” she said. “Ryan was going to come tonight, but he had to be on the East Coast. And if you know his history, the wheelchair—it’s a very touching work.”
Slashed in red letters over the image is the phrase: I WANT TO THINK SERIOUSLY ABOUT WHAT I CAN ACCOMPLISH WITH WHAT IS LEFT OF THE REST OF MY LIFE.
Left: Theaster Gates’s Black Monks of Mississippi perform. (Photo: Allese Thomson) Right: Kiara Lanier of the Black Monks of Mississippi in front of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Police the Police wall drawing. (Photo: Drew Alitzer)