OMGSTAAD! What else is there to say in the presence of the storied Swiss ski resort’s grandiose scenery—the Alps, the chalets, the people who can afford to enjoy them? This past weekend, a caravan made its way into the mountains for the opening events of “Elevation 1049,” an exhibition of public art sited in Gstaad and surrounding villages curated by Olympia Scarry and Neville Wakefield.
I decamped Friday morning from Zurich, where a crew of artists, writers, and dealers were assembling at the Hauptbahnhof. “Everybody will be there! There’s nobody who is not coming,” claimed Karma International’s Karolina Dankow. But despite the buzz, none of us could guess precisely who “everbody” might entail, apart from the twenty-eight Swiss artists participating in the show and their life and business partners.
Curator Gianni Jetzer breezed onto the platform moments before the train’s scheduled departure. “I’ve got the show in my suitcase,” he said. Moonlighting as an artist (an artist whose medium is curation), Jetzer was participating in “Elevation” by contributing a group show—named “Milky Way” after the chalet where Roman Polanski served his house arrest—staged in a hunting lodge accessible only by snowshoe. A Sunday expedition there was scrapped after both options of an arduous trek uphill and mass transportation by helicopter lost steam. So the show is consigned to mythology, a story that very few will ever know firsthand.
This could be a metonym for “Elevation.” The show is ostensibly open to the public, though Gstaad itself is “a gated community surrounded by invisible financial walls,” as it was put to me by a local reporter who was working on a trend piece about remote mountain art festivals. That said, the village is still a village, and many of the artworks, rather than being swallowed by a metropolis as urban decoration, actually galvanize the region. The exhibition becomes a kind of pop-up, an alpine Inhotim or over-the-top art theme park liberated, for better or worse, from the confines of mundane reality as most of the world knows it.
But all this came later. First, from Zurich, it was three hours and four trains to our lofty winter destination. “Welcome to Switzerland!” proclaimed curator Niels Olsen. “This is the chalet, the most barbarian architecture!” At once simple and ornate, the chalet reigns supreme here. “Elevation”-branded BMWs whisked everyone to the base of the Eggli ski slope to see Roman Signer’s anti-chalet, so to speak, fly into action. In a gesture of cartoonish grace, a boxy, unadorned house slid down the mountain and skidded to a stop. Like an Olympic torchbearer, it seemed to announce, “Let the ceremonies begin!”
As night fell, guests bundled up for a celebratory dinner hosted by Stanley Buchthal and Maja Hoffmann, whose LUMA& Foundation produced “Elevation 1049.” Like a scene out of an episode of The Bachelor, the buses dropped people off not at a restaurant or residence but at a ski lift distributing wool blankets and cups of vodka-spiked chicken soup. After shuttling through darkness along a cable strung several stories high in the frigid air, we were deposited mid-mountain, where we commenced a candlelit walk leading to a lodge, a building pervaded by the aroma of kitsch: fondue.
By early morning the sky was bright blue and expeditions set off in all directions to take in as much art as possible during daylight hours. My first stop was atop Glacier 3000, where one of Olivier Mosset’s ice-carved “Toblerones” crowned the show’s highest point: 2,964.4 meters. One hundred and some steps and two gondola rides down, in Saanen, lies the nadir, a parking garage recorded at 1,010.9 meters, “Elevation”’s lowest elevation.
Many of the works in the show allude to tropes and symbols of Swissness. Hence the Toblerone, not only a quintessential chocolate but also a term of endearment for the similarly shaped impediments built in the 1940s to protect Switzerland from tank invasions. Then there’s Bollywood Goes to Gstaad, Christian Marclay’s film that loops on one of the Glacier 3000 gondolas. It’s a fastidiously edited megamix of Swiss-themed clips from ’80s and ’90s Indian films: ingénues and their handsome lovers twirling in lush summer hills, caressing in fresh snow, shopping for sweets on the main street, or gazing out the window from a coveted seat on the SBB. It’s a wink to one of Switzerland’s many dualities, as a stalwart of exclusive tradition that simultaneously trades as the locus of a globalized, luxury-driven fantasy that is always for sale.
The other significant moving-image work in “Elevation” fills its most evocative location. In a labyrinthine, forlorn nuclear bunker, curator Matthias Brunner has installed a dozen or so projections of scenes from Daniel Schmid films that capture a distinctly Alpine nostalgia. The tunnel walls alternate between blasted, scaly stone and rudimentary concrete forms that refer to classic architectural details of villages like the one aboveground.
Cocurator Olympia Scarry also made a piece that is immediately recognizable on home turf and inscrutable elsewhere: tall posts that indicate a forthcoming construction site (“so people can air their rights and call their lawyers,” a bystander explained), cast in gold instead of the customary wood. Seeing this one required the most epic trek of the weekend. Midday Saturday, an infantry of horse-drawn sleds waited outside the town of Lauenen to bring everyone to the lake. There, Scarry’s sculpture sits outside the exotically remote lakeside restaurant where FOSI—the Friends of the Swiss Institute—hosted lunch.
Sensing an acute shortage of horses, I leapt into the only open seat, in a carriage occupied by Princess Alia al-Senussi of Libya and her friends, who were not missing the grade-A selfie and groupie opportunities provided by the tree-lined path to the Lauenensee. New Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and his chairwoman Fabienne Albrecht lavished the hungry masses with, of course, cheese, and their reassurance that the long schlep, whether equestrian or pedestrian (many walked over an hour to get there!), would preempt FOSI FOMO, a specialized hashtag if ever there were one.
That night there were reports of elves hauling armfuls of Dior bags across the winter landscape. Credible enough, as indeed the French fashion house hosted a small dinner for Wakefield and Scarry in Rossiniere at the chalet of Balthus, whose wife and daughter showed guests around the house and nearby studio. The studio itself is an uncanny, transporting sight which has been left largely untouched since the artist’s final days there. Back in Saanen, a livelier party—with tacos!—was brewing at the home of Vera Michalski. Can the Swiss do tacos? No. But tequila is hard to get wrong.
At its best, “Elevation 1049” is an extravagantly whimsical undertaking. The setting is more Disney than Disney, every pine bough and pitched roof dusted in powder. “It must be about the white snow as white cube,” mused artist Lorenzo Bernet back in Zurich. The art ranges from subtle, cute interventions—a John Armleder Christmas tree in a grove of ordinary ones, Pipilotti Rist’s video in a bottle shelved at the bar of the Hotel Olden—to immersive and proportionally entertaining ones like Thomas Hirschhorn’s menagerie of igloos and snow-packed idols. Others can’t overcome the natural splendor and unnatural opulence that make Gstaad so famous. But across the board there’s a sublime freedom for artists to play, and freedom, or so seems the case here, is expensive.
PUSSY RIOT was stopping traffic, literally, as they dashed across Singapore’s Raffles Boulevard, a PR handler hot on their flats.
“I’m very sorry, but all the artists need to be on the bus for the red carpet!” the assistant called out, in breathless panic. “We prefer to walk,” Maria Alyokhina assured him, motioning toward the sprawling Suntec City complex. To be fair, it was only two blocks away. Considering his options (and heeding the gleam in Alyokhina’s eye), the handler glumly consented, turning back to the bus while Alyokhina and her comrade, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, traded smiles.
The trip to Singapore was the first time out of the country for either of the women since their release from Russian prison in late December. The release came only three months shy of their two-year sentences, but it was enough time for Putin to try to claim some extra credit before the Sochi Olympics. While the duo will soon embark on a tour of prisons in Paris, Brussels, and New York (where the women will appear at the Amnesty International Concert at Barclays Center on February 5), they were in Singapore for another matter: namely, Pussy Riot was up for a prize at the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards.
Their attendance surprised some, and with good reason. At their first postprison press conference, the women announced that they were putting aside their art practice to found Zone of Rights, an organization dedicated to improving conditions in prisons worldwide. This prompted Moscow Conceptualist guru Anatoly Osmolovsky to issue an open letter, decrying that it was a capitulation to Putin for Pussy Riot to publically renounce their privileged status as makers of art—a force that cannot be anticipated nor controlled—for the more traditional role of advocate (an easily quashable species within Putin’s Russia). “Why would Putin have any impetus to change the prison system?” Osmolovsky thunders. “You’re proving that it works just as he wants it to!” Tolokonnikova responded with a missive of her own, insisting that Pussy Riot wasn’t giving up art, just adapting their approach. “As an artist, one must reinvent oneself,” she maintained. In other words, the Prudential Eye Awards provided a perfect opportunity to assure Pussy Riot’s public that it hasn’t renounced contemporary art altogether. “Well, that, and we wanted to see Singapore,” chirped Alyokhina.
The Eye program was founded in 1982 by Parallel Media Group’s David and Serenella Ciclitira, after the collector couple struggled to navigate Asia’s emerging art scenes. Presuming that they were not the only ones in need of orientation, the Ciclitiras began publishing primers on the art communities in Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Partnering with Prudential and the Saatchi Gallery, the Ciclitiras created the Eye Awards as a way to bring recognition (and potentially $50,000) to some of the standout artists they encountered along the way. They enlisted judges such as Singapore curator Tan Boon Hui, the Gwangju Design Biennale’s Lee Young Hye, and Saatchi Gallery CEO Nigel Hurst to help them showcase “Greater Asia” at its greatest.
I personally found the concept of “Greater Asia”—an Asia so engorged as to encompass Australia and Russia—intriguing, if not a little strange. “Maybe David’s subscribing to Niall Ferguson’s definition of the East? You know, as determined by spirituality and religion?” suggested Darren Flook, director of Independent. Ciclitira cut in correcting us with a mischievous grin: “Didn’t you ever play Risk? Irkutsk was always the key to Asia.”
Left: Prudential Eye Award winner Jompet Kuswindanato. Right: Curator Josie Brown with SIngapore International’s Gwen Lee and Jayvis Lau.
Speaking of risks, Prudential Eye certainly took a sizable one when it nominated Pussy Riot. At the press preview, video screens stayed black, due to “technical difficulties.” While almost all of the twenty shortlisted artists were present and available for interviews, the moment the speeches ended, journalists swooped down on Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who fielded questions with practiced precision. “This is nothing,” confirmed Tolokonnikova’s husband, artist Pyotr Verzilov (from whose “Voina” collective Pussy Riot originally formed). “You should see what happens with the Moscow journalists. It’s a melee.”
But back to Raffles Boulevard. As our posse waited for the bus full of artists to arrive, PR pro Jasmin Pelham motioned for Pussy Riot to stay put behind a column, so as not to incite another media mob. To kill time, Pelham told us that next door to the ceremony, there was a church service, six thousand worshippers strong.
Tolokonnikova’s eyes widened: “What kind of church? Catholic or Protestant?
“Protestant, I believe,” Pelham stammered, slightly taken aback.
“Oh, that’s cool. I’m okay with Protestants,” Tolokonnikova replied softly.
Left: Helutrans’s Dick Chia with Hisham Halim. Right: Singapore Art Museum’s Susie Lingham.
In any case, the church happened to be letting out just as the Prudential Eye Awards began. The streams of worshippers packed the down escalator, as gala-goers balled their gowns in their fists to ride the escalators up. “This reminds me of—oh, what’s that Woody Allen film? Stardust Memories?” Flook mused, as both parties gawked at each other. “You know, that scene where in one train car you’ve got this fabulous soiree, while the other is just full of the most miserable human beings you’ve ever seen.” I wasn’t sure which side was which in Flook’s equation.
Inside, the ballroom was awash in a swirl of plum-colored lights. “You should have seen it before they consulted me,” artist Petroc Sesti boasted. I could barely hear him over the James Bond–esque theme song, which imbued the room with a theatrical intrigue that made even finding your seat felt like a mission. While the invite requested black tie, few heeded the call; I made sure to compliment jury member Andrei Erofeev on his crisp suit. “This is the first time I’ve ever worn a black tie,” the controversial curator shot back. “Let’s hope it’s the last.”
For all the pomp, the prizes were rattled off rapid-fire, with the first going to visibly stoked painter Ben Quilty. “I’ve always believed that artists should be able to win trophies. It’s like I’ve won the Melbourne Cup!” Next, Yogyakarta staple Jompet Kuswidananto won for installation, and Seoul-based Seung Wook Sim took home the prize for sculpture and Australian Trent Parke for photography. These were followed by a pause for a set of special awards, including Outstanding Contributions to Asian Art, which went to Liu Xiaodong, and Most Promising Asian Gallery, which went to Kuala Lumpur’s Galerie Chandan. (“Never heard of them,” shrugged the Malaysian dealer across the table from me.) The Prudential Singapore Young Artist Award was given to student James John Dycoco, who sputtered in shock at the honor: “Wow. Just wow,” he concluded.
Left: Collector Melani Setiawn. Right: Prudential Eye Award jury member Andrei Erofeev with nominee Ira Korina.
As a “cosmopolitan” interlude, native Neapolitan actress Serena Autieri (introduced as “the voice of the Italian version of Frozen”) took to the stage for a song. Following her flawless performance, the hosts struggled to cover the extended silence while the stage was dismantled. “So now we have to make some banter,” the hostess bluntly broadcast. “Has anyone seen Frozen?” her cohost attempted.
It was a relief when the awards resumed, with the Best Asian Art Exhibition going to the Singapore Biennale. (“Big surprise,” a dealer across the table scoffed, rolling her eyes.) Singapore Art Museum director Susie Lingham accepted on behalf of the behemoth, twenty-seven-curator, eighty-two-artist undertaking. “I didn’t prepare any speech for this, because, well, honestly? I didn’t know this award existed until just a moment ago.” (No seriously, has anyone seen Frozen?)
Autieri would grace the stage once more, to give the penultimate prize in the hotly anticipated Digital/Video category, which pitted Daniel Crooks, Baden Pailthorpe, Pussy Riot, and Yang Yongliang. In the milliseconds after Crooks was proclaimed the winner, the only sound in the room was that James Bond theme song, as everyone confirmed that they had heard correctly before applauding for Crooks. “We were looking at the whole body of work,” one of the jury members confided later. Another was more candid: “Frankly, I would never consider Pussy Riot ‘art.’ ”
The final prize of the evening was for “the winner or winners,” who would be featured in a solo show at London’s Saatchi Gallery. It went to Quilty. The artist was visibly more humbled this go-round: “Growing up in Australia, I’ve always felt like I was living in some dark spot. It’s only now that I really see my place within Greater Asia,” he began, before shifting gears. “There are people in this world who believe that art can change the world. And there are people in this room who have paid the price for believing that art can change in the world.” Quilty paused, letting the message sink in. “I just don’t know what else to say: Drinks on me tonight, you guys!”
I looked over to catch Pussy Riot’s reaction to the speech, but they had already disappeared.
“CAN YOU BELIEVE I’ve been in this country three months and still haven’t made it up here?” curator Ute Meta Bauer marveled from the terrace atop Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. Tapped as the founding director of Center for Contemporary Art Singapore, Bauer has spent most of her time at the Gillman Barracks, a reconverted army training facility now home to CCA as well as gallery franchises Arndt, ShanghART, Michael Janssen, and Pearl Lam. With CCA’s first exhibition—“Paradise Lost,” featuring videos by Zarina Bhimji, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Fiona Tan—slated to open just days later, it was understandable that sightseeing hadn’t been Bauer’s priority.
We were making up for lost time, toasting the sweeping view of the city before us, from its now-pristine reservoir to a stretch of shiny blue skyscrapers. None of this was here seven years ago, not even the land. In fact, as I was told, almost 30 percent of what we know as Singapore sits on recently reclaimed turf. Capitalizing on the new terrain, the city-state has indulged all manner of architectural whimsy. Take Michael Wilford’s roly-poly Esplanade or the Avatar-inspired, solar-cell-studded “Supertrees” in the Gardens by the Bay. Or the lily pad–like Artscience Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie as part of the greater Marina Bay Sands complex. All erected over the past few years, the buildings give the impression of having only just shed their wrappers, kind of like after a birthday party, when a child lines up all his new toys for evaluation.
Left: Collector “Dr Oei” Hong Dijen at Art Stage Singapore. Right: Dealer Graham Steele and artist Ashley Bickerton at Art Stage Singapore.
Built in 2011, the fourteen-million-square-foot Marina Bay Sands embodies the city’s most CGI-esque architectural ambitions. Each of its three towers helps support what resembles an enormous surfboard, a rooftop deck replete with restaurants, bars, and the oft-photographed “Infinity Pool.” “I’m staying in one tower, but they serve breakfast in another. I have to walk twenty minutes through the luxury mall to get there,” said writer Sabine Vogel. “Can you imagine all those Prada advertisements before coffee?”
We had been whisked up to the rooftop for a special brunch to inaugurate the fourth edition of ArtStage Singapore, a hybrid exhibition/art fair that’s the jewel of Singapore Art Week, part of the country’s bid to establish itself as the international hub for Southeast Asia. The fair opened its doors for a VIP preview last Wednesday, in its space at the Marina Bay Sands Expo Centre. (One unique perk? VIPs could use the pool.)
The fair itself features a heady mix of smaller galleries from Southeast Asia and a smattering of those Westerners who have opened second or third spaces in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore. “I participated the first two years, then skipped last year,” dealer Kashya Hildebrand confessed. “I came back because I figured things could get pretty fun now that Art Basel Hong Kong has given all these Asian galleries the boot. Collectors missing their Asian art fix know they can come here.” All that and more: Berlin/Seoul/Beijing–based Michael Schultz Gallery made headlines offering a flashy $11.5 million Gerhard Richter painting, with another Richter reported as sold for a more palatable €580,000.
As the preview crowds began to thicken, I clocked collectors Uli Sigg and “Dr Oei” Hong Dijon before running into artist Ashley Bickerton, who was inspecting a Zhang Xiaogang painting at Beijing Commune. “This guy’s a fine painter, but he keeps pulling the same tricks. Risks becoming a one-noter,” Bickerton clucked. I shifted the conversation to Bali and Bickerton’s status as an “Indonesian” artist, and he told me frankly that he was probably packing up and leaving the island. “It’s not like it was. The industrial machine is moving in.” He gave me a knowing look, and I couldn’t help but feel implicated.
ArtStage founder and director Lorenzo Rudolf (who helmed Art Basel in the pre-Keller era of 1991–2000) keeps the fair from feeling too corporate through the use of ingeniously deployed “Platforms,” nation- or region-specific exhibitions selected from the offerings at the fair by some of Asia’s most celebrated curators, including Mori Art Museum’s Mami Kataoka (Japan); Kim Sung Won (Korea); Charles Merewether (Central Asia); and artist Bose Krishnamachari, who’s responsible for creating Kochi, India’s first biennial. The mixture of curatorial statements and price tags seemed to take; Continua sold Qiu Zhijie’s The Politics of Laughing for $80,000, while Sundaram Tagore delighted in the $66,000 sale of Jane Lee’s 50 Faces. (Lee’s show continues at the gallery’s Gillman Barracks outpost.) Shakshi Gupta’s intricately-carved-and-feathered totem also found a home via Platforms. “You need to get her to tell you the story behind it,” Gupta’s dealer, Thomas Krinzinger, urged. “It’s something about an elephant that gets bitten by a dragon and spends many years nursing the injury. Once he learns to let go of this pain, however, he sprouts wings and learns to fly.”
“We’ve spent the last few years building up our infrastructure. Now we’re ready to focus on art and culture,” explained lawyer Jane Ittogi, chair of the Singapore Art Museum and board member of the National Art Gallery. (Ittogi is, incidentally, the wife of Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s deputy prime minister and current chair of the International Monetary Fund Committee.) She was sitting with Chong Siak Ching, the newly announced CEO of the National Art Gallery (slated to open in 2015), at a table installed outside the Singapore Art Museum as part of The World Embassy of Problems. The performance, Indonesian artist’s Tisna Sanjaya’s contribution to the biennial, encouraged visitors to pull up a chair and discuss real issues. Dutifully, Ittogi and I traded polite commentary on the state of Singapore’s art scene over sticky spoonfuls of a globe-shaped cake, while around us artists acted out our affirmations through burlap-sack costumes and fingerpaints. After what seemed a respectful amount of time, I excused myself and ducked back to a crew of artists and writers on the museum’s lawn. “I imagine someone just got herself fed a whole heaping of the party line,” a Hong Kong writer cracked. “And cake!” I clarified.
Party line or not, there is no denying that the city’s art scene is blooming, and not just at Gillman Barracks. Helutrans, a set of massive portside warehouses currently enables projects like Ikkan, Galerie Steph, and Richard Koh. Other galleries—Yavuz and Art Plural—stick to the museum district. As part of Singapore Art Week, Chan Hampe Gallery’s Benjamin Milton Hampe helped organize “Art in Motion,” a gallery bus tour that kicked off the week with a welcome dinner timed to coincide with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute’s opening for Han Soi Pur. “Our Louise Bourgeois,” as I was advised, the sculptor is best known for her monumental stone works (a few of which camp outside the National Museum). For the STPI event, however, Han made the most of the Institute’s in-house paper mill and tried her hand crafting pulp into the shape of tropical fruits. “She’s one of the few women working with industrial materials here,” Heritage Board curator Tan Boon Hui informed me. “It’s mind-blowing—not to reinforce the stereotype that women can’t work with stone, but have you seen her? She’s so tiny! It’s amazing to think she is the force moving and shaping these gigantic stones.”
Left: Dealers Manfred Wiplinger, Thomas Krinzinger and Ursula Krinzinger with artist Entang Wiharso at Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Right: Artist Han Sai Por at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.
IN JANUARY, Los Angeles swells with visitors and holiday lingerers who opt for a disadvantaged time zone over the chill of displaced weather vortices. Not to be outdone by the Golden Globes, LA’s art scene used this past weekend as the season opener for galleries across town. It provided a festive glimmer of the future of this local art world, which continues to reclaim forgotten buildings and neighborhoods as it katamaris over palm trees and traffic.
Case in point: Hollywood. In a year it’s been reborn as a lodestar in the city’s art topography. Hannah Hoffman’s space arrived this fall on Highland and Santa Monica. (Hoffman herself relocated from New York only about a year and a half ago.) On Friday, she hosted the opening of “The Body Issue,” a group show curated by Frank Benson. The UCLA-educated, Brooklyn-based artist was happy to make the flight and don a different though not altogether new hat. “I suppose the role of curator felt familiar to me,” he said, “because of my background in nonprofits, in putting together shows of my own work paired with other artists, and in collecting and sequencing images online.” It’s a rule-based exhibition of pictures in which 1) each photo includes the human figure as subject; 2) each image is shot in a “similar, sharply focused style”; and 3) each artist is represented by a single work. Among them are a blond in a blond hat by Elad Lassry; Talia Chetrit and Wolfgang Tillmans’s studies of body hair; and glossy portraits by Benson, Roe Ethridge, and others.
Dinner afterward was held at Rao’s, the newly opened Tinseltown outpost of East Harlem’s 117-year-old red-sauce Italian institution. Walking instead of driving the quarter-mile there from the gallery (while enduring a fifty-degree wind chill), Sam Falls offered some background: “Apparently the one in New York is notorious for not being able to get into, and also for not very good food,” but the converse was rumored to be true of this one. Inside we joined a lively posse including Lassry, Ry Rocklen, writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, and Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi for friendly conversation over meatballs.
The next night, hundreds more found themselves back at the intersection of Santa Monica and Highland for Regen Projects’ show of new sculptures by Liz Larner. “We have been together since the very beginning,” waxed Shaun Caley Regen of Larner and the gallery’s Paleolithic relationship. Some of the sculptures themselves alluded to mineral antiquity: heavily glazed, cracked ceramics mounted to the wall, opaque windows onto time and form.
“Black Prius? Black Prius?” This was the disconcerting call of the bottlenecked valet seeking the owner of not the first and not the last black Prius to be claimed before everyone’s rides were transferred to Mud Hen Tavern parking three blocks away. The rebranded gastropub, which, in a feat of foodiemorphosis, cannibalized a South Asian street food–inspired canteen, was hemorrhaging art-world friends from near and far. There were artists Walead Beshty and Sharon Lockhart, Lisa Schiff and a post-Holland Ann Goldstein. There was the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new curator Beau Rutland, and, disturbing the space-time continuum, Bill and Ted—aka actors Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, who were enjoying an excellent adventure cozied up by the fire pit.
Meanwhile, downtown, thousands of fashionable guests sieged the opening of the Ace Hotel, whose palatial digs in the remodeled United Artists building should help fix the art-world compass eastward. Now there’s a ruggedly cosmopolitan watering hole—and 2,300-seat gothic theater!—where the likes of Philippe Vergne’s MoCA 2.0, GBE Mission Road, and the forthcoming Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel can entertain.
It wasn’t the only enormous, forlorn auditorium to be reanimated this weekend. Some five miles west, in the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple on Wilshire, performances were brewing for an audience of roughly… zero. The nearly 100,000-square-foot building has laid vacant since the 1990s, with the exception of occasional film shoots, raves, and illegal boxing matches. But now it’s the future site of the Maurice and Paul Marciano Art Foundation. Construction begins this year, and to kick-start the demolition process the Marcianos handed over its creepy, cavernous halls to Ryan Trecartin to use, carte blanche. As we wandered the closed set, the stillness was broken by parkourists slamming baseball bats through windows, zombie voices gargling down echoing tunnels, and, eventually, the trills of an alarm. “I think your phone’s ringing!” a sound technician warned Trecartin. “It’s OK, I like the red-alert sound.” Soon enough, the acres of carpet looked like the aftermath of a Barry Le Va frat party, beautifully littered with shattered glass.
Maurice Marciano’s response to the carnage was reportedly an invitation to “break more stuff,” a temptation that characterizes this epoch for LA’s art world in which its players are picking up the pieces and breaking new ground with equal fervor.
Left and right: Ryan Trecartin shoot at the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple.
SO OFTEN NOW, everything looks and feels like everything else. Yet the New York art world managed to kick off 2014 with something different, namely Jersey City. On Wednesday, January 8, when a polar vortex had the East Coast in its bone-chilling grip, curious art advisers, collectors, and journalists from Manhattan traveled across the Hudson River to preview current exhibitions at Mana Contemporary.
“It’s a city of art,” said painter Yigal Ozeri, a founder with Mana chief executive Eugene Lemay, who parlayed success in the moving and fine art–storage business into a vast, two-million-square-foot complex on the onetime campus of the American Can Company. So far, the two-year-old operation includes built-to-suit studios for artists, a foundry, a printmaking shop, a recording studio, a theater, a café, commercial and nonprofit galleries, and storage for three hundred private collections. The future will add a boutique hotel, five restaurants, a sculpture garden, a coffee roasting company, and a new stop for the PATH commuter train by the parking lot, a ten- or fifteen-minute trip from Lower Manhattan. Bushwick, are you listening?
Left: Dealers Anton Kern and Friedrich Petzel. Right: Artist Stan Douglas.
“The idea was to create a community for artists and collectors,” Lemay said, with on-site facilities to serve all of them, all at once. While artists are making art, collectors can do studio visits, invite curators and friends to private exhibitions of their holdings, or add to them by picking from satellites of galleries based in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Indonesia. “We come here a lot,” said Sotheby’s VP Lisa Dennison, who arrived for the evening with her entire art-dedicated family. (One of her sons, Tyler Waywell, is a director for Mana Contemporary’s Middle East Center for the Arts.) “We have more art-dedicated space than the Met,” Lemay said. “Only the Louvre has more.”
Choreographer Karole Armitage and architect Richard Meier did. She rehearses with her dance company here; he has a “museum” of 150 architectural models on open-storage display. Another choreographer, Shen Wei, is also a visual artist who makes big paintings down the hall; Aaron Young’s studio is big enough to ride his motorcycle around it.
If the communal atmosphere felt more kibbutz than Bauhaus, it may have been because Lemay spent his youth in Israel after his Christian parents converted to Judaism and moved the family there from Michigan. He also led an assault squad during Israel’s 1982 war with Lebanon, moving to New York in 1984 to charge into the battlefields of art with weapons of mass construction. (More Mana Contemporaries are coming to Miami, London, and Los Angeles. Chicago has one now.)
Left: Architect Peter Marino. Right: Dealer Mary Boone.
Sunday afternoon open studios at the Jersey City flagship draw up to 5,000 people, the effusive Lemay said, “80 percent” from the art world. But this was a Wednesday, and about a hundred VIPs showed up for a tour of the main building’s five floors. In a ground-floor gallery, Lemay himself showed penumbral ink-jet paintings related to his wartime experience, and a performance by two of Shen Wei’s company dancers was about to begin. “We’re waiting for Charlie Rose,” Lemay said.
Let loose in the building twenty minutes later, the art tourists discovered Ozeri signing copies of the latest volume in a history of Photorealism put together by the married dealers Susan and Louis Meisel. “They put my painting on the cover!” Ozeri exclaimed, unable to contain his excitement. On the other floors, Meier and printmaker Gary Lichtenstein submitted to questions from their invading guests, while Moishan Gaspar dug in his heels for Mana’s reincarnation of his Barcelona family’s venerable gallery, closed since 1996, with books, correspondence, family photographs, and posters by Picasso, Braque, Miro, and Tàpies outlining the gallery’s history. The Middle East Center had a three-part exhibition on one floor, and a collaborative project by Shoja Azari and Shahram Karimi on another.
Back in Manhattan on Thursday, the season’s official opening night found David Zwirner’s Ninteenth Street gallery fully recovered from its preholiday, 2,500-a-day onslaught of Yayoi Kusama enthusiasts. The space leading into Stan Douglas’s jazzy new, Jean-Luc Godard–inspired film was now quite bare and dimly lit, its walls painted a welcome soft gray. Under the blinding lights at Bortolami Gallery, new Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis hire Jeffrey Uslip had put together “A Chromatic Loss,” a group show of body-related black, white, and gray artworks that was actually diverting, though you’d never guess that from the overwrought phrases (“…immanent criticality and material subversiveness simultaneously cohere as a unified collective”) in the press release. By comparison—not that there is any reason for comparison—Saul Fletcher’s new photographs at Anton Kern were the soul of simplicity and unforced beauty. When Lehmann Maupin’s West Twenty-Sixth Street gallery filled up with fans of Alex Prager’s photographs of various public assemblies, the slightly agoraphobic artist was not even a face in the crowd (the title of her show), because she had already departed for the gallery’s Chrystie Street space, where the rest of her pictures were no doubt keeping good company. Discomfited by Prager’s new video (studies of people who need people but are afraid of them), I headed uptown to Gregor Hildebrandt’s New York solo debut at Emmanuel Perrotin.
The Berlin-based artist makes paintings and collages out of now useless audiotape, recording songs by bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and the Cure before pressing them to canvas. Upstairs, he hung old videotapes around the room to make black curtains. Downstairs, the empty audiocassettes were the “tiles” for a mosaic floor-work. The installations so impressed architect Peter Marino that he commissioned the artist to make a new work for an exhibition he’s preparing for the Bass Museum, opening during the next Miami Basel. “The art world is great,” said advisor Marcia Levine during dinner at Orsay. “You meet so many nice people.”
By comparison Friday was quiet, though openings at Wallspace, Marlborough Contemporary, and Derek Eller were not. At Wallspace, the generational shift that began taking place among artists a few years ago hit its stride, both on the walls in its group show and in the supporting crowd. The same was true at Marlborough, where Davina Semo’s neo-Minimalist sculptures gave a whole new meaning to chain mail. In this context, David Dupuis suddenly seemed an éminence grise at Derek Eller, though he is hardly a senior citizen. However, his maturity worked to his advantage in his exquisite collaged drawings, which exuded the desires of youth but from an advanced perspective that made them all the more poignant.
Heightened emotion arrived at Paula Cooper’s satellite space on Tenth Avenue on Saturday night as a wave of extraordinary sound, actually a song of the sirens. It came from four opera singers, all women, whom Liz Glynn persuaded to board boats that would ferry them from Staten Island to Manhattan, humming all the way, and then walk (still humming) for an hour—through a chilly rain—to the gallery, where they broke into full-throated song. The onetime performance introduced Glynn’s new papier-mâché sculptures, though they really looked like antiquities salvaged from the sea. (The show has a piracy theme.) “You never hear voices that big in a space this small,” observed Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume, one of the many struck dumb by the experience. When I asked Beverly Vanessa Hill, who had the biggest and richest voice, what it took to make the whole journey, she said, “I understood that comfort is not good for art.” She was magnificent.
Downtown at Maccarone, the arrangements of small objects on view, by the fully bearded Cypriot artist Panos Kyriacou, also seemed like relics from a culture you couldn’t quite name. Michele Maccarone discovered his work in the joint Cypriot/Lithuanian pavilion at the last Venice Biennale and took herself straight to Cyprus to sign him up. “This kind of thing almost never happens,” she said. “But I really think he’s important.”
Next door at Gavin Brown, eighty-six-year-old Alex Katz caused many a double-take by flying the canvases of his new portraits in opposite corners of freestanding steel frames. Lit by soft, overhead spotlights, they looked a bit like pennants that seemed to glow from within. “Until I found out who made them, I thought this was work by a young artist,” said Jose Castillo Pazos, the artist whom a beaming Chrissie Iles introduced to everyone in sight as her new beau. Katz has made cutouts before, starting in 1959, when they were painted on wood, but this installation turned a whole new page on those. It also gave an extra dimension to an already deep, and deeply disconcerting, new film by Dara Friedman. Screening on two walls of the gallery’s back room, with Katz’s double portraits in the middle, seventeen different couples acted out their most intimate moments.
Dinner for the artists was not on the gallery’s expansive rooftop terrace, as dinners here usually are, but indoors, where the close quarters caused some mighty fine elbow bumping between Irving Sandler and Richard Armstrong here, Mera Rubell and Mark Handforth (celebrating his forty-fifth birthday) there. Dealer John Riepenhoff, whose Green Gallery in Milwaukee had opened a show by—guess who?—the emerging artist Gavin Brown only two days earlier, neatly sat himself amid collectors who included Michael and Susan Hort, Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg, and more. “I know it looks suspicious, with Gavin’s show on and all,” he admitted, “but it was really the only empty seat when I came in.”
In the latest of what Yvonne Force Villareal called Brown’s “notorious” toasts, he began, “If Dara and Mark become what Alex and Ada have become, that would be extraordinary.” Apparently making it up as he went along, he characterized the Katz/Friedman combo by saying that “they breathe truths in each other’s work that I didn’t know were there before.” That sounded totally right. Verne Dawson, another gallery artist, thought so. “Great show,” he noted. “It’s a very good time to be here.”
SHOWCASING BUDDHAS in the former Barneys New York Chelsea flagship, the Rubin Museum conjures brilliant programming to connect its timeless stash with current tastes in enlightenment. Adding a few ascetics to the mix, its popular Brainwave series offers “celebrities and scientists [to] discuss the mysteries of the mind.” As perky programmer Tim McHenry proudly presented “how our brains function sponsored for a fourth year by MetLife,” my brain and I settled in for an illuminating evening last Monday. Isabella Rossellini (“The Performance Artist”) and animal behaviorist Diana Reiss of Hunter College were there to “discuss the extent to which animals determine their own actions.”
Lulled by the warm, crunchy vibe of the crowd—all of whom struck me as either therapists, meditators, and/or cat ladies—I was thinking “I should come here more often” when a finger jabbed me on the shoulder:
“Would you take off your hat?” said the aggrieved lady giving me the stink-eye—in a hat!
“You’re wearing a hat,” I observed as I removed my beanie, not deigning to engage her further. Mindfulness! I made an effort therein to sit as tall as my 5’2” capacity would permit like a cat puffs up its fur to look as large as possible when threatened. So much for my projections about humans…
Lifelong animal lover Rossellini studies animal behavior at Hunter when she’s not jetting around the world presenting her Green Pornos, a delightful series of shorts (now a book and an upcoming show at BAM) in which she portrays a variety of beasts, all of them flirts sharing her sultry Italian accent: “If I were an earthworm, I would have no brain,” she purrs seductively encased in a mummy-like worm suit. “Dolphins. Anything goes!” She shoots a coquettish glance as a sea mammal in a rubber bathing cap cavorting in cartoonish waves and fields offers for “blowhole sex,” homosexual, and even interspecies interludes (with pilot whales).
Citing our palpable bond with animals such as her dog Pinocchio, who “smiles only at me—not at other dogs” (possibly imitating her?), Rossellini dismissed skeptics about animal communication: “They often accuse us of projecting—that it doesn’t really exist—but that’s not true.”
Reiss agreed: “Animals read subtleties in behavior and so do we. Why are we looking at turkeys’ knowing twenty-five words?” (Who knew?) “Yes, it’s important—but that’s not the only thing. We come to conclusions about our relationship to animals based on language—Aristotle’s notion of language as the external representation of thought—as if you cannot think without (human) language. When you look at animal behavior—there’s a syntax to animal behavior.”
Clearly receptive to Rossellini’s emphasis on animal empathy, as a scientist Reiss was cautious to stay close to observable phenomena. She showed video footage of dolphin “creativity”: blowing rings to create “its own object of play”; a dolphin watching itself twirl in front of a mirror as evidence of self-awareness; an anecdote about possible dolphin “humor” involving a signal to trainers who offered the jesting mammal the wrong treats.
“We are animals. We should say humans and other animals,” Reiss reminded us. “[The traditional view since Descartes says] we have a physical body/brain and a thinking substance—and animals don’t have that. [But the] evidence doesn’t support that. The question is not, do they think? It’s, how do they think? Subcortical sections of the brain—pain, fear, panic, happiness—the emotive aspects are something we share. We have a lot in common emotionally and even in thinking with animals. As scientists we have to find ways to show it.”
“Ants have a lot of different personalities. Some are lazy bums, some work a lot, and some practice and get good at something.” Reiss’s colleague—Mark Moffett, a.k.a. “Dr. Bugs”—chimed in from the audience.
The most interesting takeaway of the evening—at least for me—was a lesson about acting that resulted directly from the encounter between the performer and the scientist. As they tried to reconcile emotional expression with science, Rossellini drew a fascinating parallel between critters and thespians: “[Like animals,] actors play the subtext—emotion, not dialogue. It’s tone—not word—that gives the meaning. As an actor, 90 percent of what we do is nonverbal. You [the actor] are in charge of the emotion. The writer is in charge of words. [As an actor] you don’t even think about words. With a good actor, you just read the emotion.” A bad actor “acts” by saying the lines, Rossellini told us, and then imitated a stilted word-driven delivery. “[Language] is not how we communicate—it’s much more than that.”
Audience comments represented a sampler platter of clichés that perhaps justified the basic level of the discussion, from the moralist concerned about “dolphin rape” to the philosophy grad student who insisted on zombie Cartesian categories. (“How could animals ‘think’ if they don’t have language?”)
With emotion, a therapist described the “remarkable bond” experienced by a borderline psychiatric patient whose companion dog “gave her the will to live.”
Another said that sessions with an animal communicator re: her Jack Russell “changed my life. Their consciousness is just like ours, they don’t have the verbal—they communicate on an energetic level.”
“As a scientist we should be looking into this,” said Reiss. “Nonverbal communication with animals [is] not respected enough in the field.”
Befitting the venue, someone queried: “Is there a difference between our ability to change our karma versus animals’ ability to change their karma? That’s how I see the difference between us and other animals.”
Seizing the moment, McHenry referred visitors to the Tibetan shrine room upstairs where the wheel of life “allows for the possibility that animals have an ability to improve their station on the wheel of suffering as humans do.” And urged us to buy each speaker’s book. And on that note “of compassion—for the impact of your actions on human beings and other animals,” he bid us good night.
The Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. (All photos: Kevin McGarry)
“UM, what’s your favorite bubblegum?” a voice asks off camera.
“Watermelon. Watermelon bubblegum, man. It’s the best. It’s so good…” Britney Spears answers the question with a pained smile and an air of bittersweet introspection, as if Watermelon Bubblegum were the name of her childhood sled. A flare of white erases her.
These first fifteen seconds of I Am Britney Jean, the E! network documentary about the making of Britney’s latest stage show, are endlessly richer than the film’s ensuing ninety minutes. Though dull in itself, it’s one of two off-brand cable TV biographies whose anticipation (among people in my life, anyway) was a topic of conversation in late 2013. (The other is Lifetime’s House of Versace starring Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace, another paragon of Y2K kitsch addled by the vices of celebrity.)
The production at the heart of the film is Piece of Me, Britney’s two-year residency at the AXIS Theater at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, which kicked off on December 27. I caught last Monday’s show, the third to date (there is a planned hiatus now until late January), and it was a marvel to behold. Fundamentally similar to her tours and awards show appearances—replete with choreography, costume changes, and pyrotechnics, and sustained by an unremitting spirit of camp—Piece of Me is built to stay put, so the set and the toys that embellish and inhabit it are more spectacular than those of a portable version. As a Planet Hollywood bartender intoned before the event, “It’s not a concert, it’s a show.”
Until now, the Vegas strip of lore has been reserved for Celine Dion, Cher, Elvis—cash-cow pop stars who are ready to trade their life on earth for a place on this Olympus at the bottom of the desert. But even at her young age (Spears is thirty-two), Britney has already walked for years among the pantheon of living-dead American icons, existentially stunted, as child stars often are, tormented by the circumstances that preclude her from simply being herself, or as she would say, like she often does in her Louisiana twang, to be “mei.”
Left and right: Views of Britney Spears's Piece of Me.
“I don’t do US cultural references too well,” Hito Steyerl, who regrettably was not in attendance, wrote me by e-mail. “I’d compare her to Nadia Comăneci. I love Brit, but I can’t pretend to really ‘get it’ because, probably, I really don’t.” It’s a fruitful parallel. Comăneci was not just an athlete du jour; she was transcendent at gymnastics, certifiably perfect. When she was an adolescent, crowds worldwide were riveted by her body, watching her move it artfully and effortlessly through space, just like Britney. As Comăneci matured, her diamondiferous sharpness was tempered, though in memory she remains brilliant. Britney’s career followed a similar, inevitable course, albeit with a much steeper decline, the depths of which she seems to have inched out of in recent years.
The show opens with an ominous, flickering sequence of mythological Britney moments, her kiss with Madonna and the albino snake around her neck during a Bush-era MTV VMA performance of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” intercut with faux-vintage footage of a young Spears playing dress-up in her bedroom, scampering past a LIKE A VIRGIN poster and donning a fedora and pink feather boa (proxy for the boa constrictor). The video ends and the curtains part: A squadron of dancers advance from a bank of smoke and light as Britney is lowered onto the stage in a spherical cage. It detonates on impact, showering the set with sparks.
Britney wears a headset, but she only uses it to awkwardly chat with the audience a couple times during the twenty-four-number, hour-and-a-half-long show. “Hi Vegas, can you help me count to three?” she asks, as a segue into “Three,” a single from her second greatest-hits album that recasts Peter, Paul, and Mary as code for ménage a trois. (“One… Twoo… Threee!”) All the singing is unambiguously lifted from the vocal tracks from her studio albums. Her own dance moves, though tricky, mostly consist of flicking her extremities (the dozen or so dancers, meanwhile, do quintuple backflips and jog upside down in DayGlo hamster wheels, the latter exercise occasioned by the self-referential song “Scream & Shout,” which is presided over by a house-size hologram of will.i.am chanelling the Wizard of Oz). There are no live-cast close-ups of the performer’s face, probably a huge relief for someone who has to muster the energy to do this one hundred times.
Despite all these apparent deficiencies, the excess of pageantry more than compensates, and the resounding effect is overwhelming, intimate, even authentic. The show is an incarnation of pop in a temple of consumption, and whether one is watching its star dodge jets of fire, dive off a three-story-tall tree, or simply prance around the stage officiously flirting with her (presumably gay) backup dancers, there’s a unique honesty to her warped nature and in watching her perform work that has not figuratively, but quite actually, and for many years now superseded her life.
As more heavyweights from the music industry join Lady Gaga and Jay-Z in making overtures to the art world (hoping, perhaps, to conjure some cross-collaboration sales voodoo), Britney puts all her strategy into perspiration, carrying on more or less as she has since she was a kid. As she flounders on the charts, rather than try to wedge her way back in through calculated, fashionable gimmickry, she sticks to classic, oblivious gimmickry. Beyoncé’s new “visual album” cannily exploited the Internet and the enduring traction of music videos, but B’s “Queendom,” to quote Nicki Minaj’s new perfume ads, is Teflon. Arriving at Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, you’re greeted by a self-conscious cardboard cutout of Britney aping overconfidence. The same image is emblazoned on buildings and drawn in lights all around the city, like the face of a dystopian megacorporation, the American psyche, where she smiles, center ring—a figure tragic and golden just like we like them.