Now and Then

Marrakech
03.31.14

Left: Marrakech Biennale artistic director Alya Sebti with biennale visual arts curator Hicham Khalidi and literature curator Driss Ksikes. Right: Artist Alexander Ponaromev. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


ON THE EVE of the fifth Marrakech Biennale, I dined with two kings. They are the founding monarchs of Elgaland-Vargaland, an amorphous dominion occupying the border territories between every country in the world—including the virtual. “Every time you travel somewhere,” its website proclaims, “and every time you enter another form, such as the dream state, you visit Elgaland-Vargaland.”

The kings—Swedish artist-composers Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren— were inaugurating their Moroccan “embassy” that night at the Riad Kantarell, an intimate (no locks) guesthouse located deep within the gated, twelfth-century walls of the Marrakech Medina (the old city), a few dark-alley twists behind the sixteenth-century Saâdian tombs and up a sloping, narrow street crammed with butcher stalls fronted by raw meats. A raggedy flank of the escapist kingdom’s 980 current subjects attended the ceremony, including the London-based Touch label’s Mike Harding and J. G. (“Foetus”) Thirlwell, two of twelve sonic artists from Europe, Scandinavia, and America responsible for “Freq_Out,” a collective sound installation hosted by the biennial at the abandoned Theatre Royal.

Under the Elgaland-Vargaland flag, which looks very much like the Moroccan road sign warning of sharp curves ahead, speeches were made and new passport applications approved, while guests were treated to live music by traditionally costumed Gnawa players and a buffet of Moroccan specialties. After getting fleeced by two shopkeepers, a cab driver, and a guide through the Kasbah, the evening made a perfect introduction to the biennial’s surreal conjunction of contemporary art and the ages-old, unlikely-to-change-anytime-soon culture of Marrakech.

Left: Marrakech Biennale founder Vanessa Branson with her mother, Eve Branson. Right: Bank Al Maghrib on Jemaa El Fna Square.


Indeed, the Red City’s historical pileup of migrations and identities prompted the artistic director, Alya Sebti, and the curators for visual art, film, literature, and performing arts to pose the question “Where Are We Now?” as the biennial’s title and theme. In Marrakech, however, that is not a question so much as a functional metaphor for the bewilderment that sets in soon after arriving and attempting to walk across any street (basically by diving headlong into oncoming traffic).

That’s one reason why Vanessa Branson, the former British art dealer (and sister of Richard Branson, the hot-air balloonist who created Virgin Atlantic), founded the trilingual biennial nearly ten years ago as a bridge between cultures. Despite a lack of infrastructure to support contemporary art, Marrakech, she concluded, was ripe for something other than shopping in its labyrinthine souk. “You can discuss contemporary ideas through art without causing offense,” she told journalists gathered for a press conference the next morning at Riad El Fenn, the high-end caravansary that she owns with Howell James, Christie’s media relations chief in London. As headquarters for the biennial, it was also the site for talks, readings, roundtables, and screenings.

The press conference preceded a daylong preview of the festival’s principal art exhibitions led by their Moroccan-born, Netherlands-based curator, Hicham Khalidi. “Ninety percent of the artworks are site-specific,” he said. “I think that’s unique,” chimed in biennial director Stefan Holwe. A total of 450 international artists were participating, ninety-seven from the visual arts, and many of those from Africa, India, Europe, and Morocco. “What is the status of Morocco today within the arts?” Sebti said. “That’s what we are asking ourselves.” The point, Khalidi told me, was to look forward and backward through all the layers of Moroccan history at once.

Left: Freq_Out artists Jacob Kierkegaard and J.G. Thirwell. Right: Carl Michael von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren, the Kings of Elgaland-Vargaland.


During dinner that night at El Fenn, I joined the American dealer Curt Marcus, a biennial board member at Branson’s table, where I met her ninety-year-old mother, Eve Branson. It wasn’t hard to see her children’s philanthropic DNA in Eve, when she spoke of her own foundation’s mission to help Berber women and children of the High Atlas Mountains to help themselves. “Everything is strange here,” she would tell me. “Just expect it. Nothing is normal.”

On Wednesday, February 26, as the biennial began its five-week run under the first-time patronage of King Mohammed VI, “normal” definitely had become an abstraction. Opening ceremonies took place within the ruins of the twelfth-century El Badi Palace—the exhibition’s primary visual art venue—while mating season for the dense population of storks nesting atop its pockmarked walls was also under way. Various dignitaries, including the mayor of Marrakech, biennial vice president Amine Kabbaj, British ambassador to Morocco Clive Alderton, former French culture minister Jack Lang, and Branson, spoke from a platform set up behind Madonna, a standing but unarmed crossbow made of two-by-fours by French sculptor Max Boufathal, who had it aimed at the resident storks. “It works,” he said. “But we wouldn’t want to hurt anybody here.”

The palace grounds are large enough to accommodate a couple of football stadiums, so it was hard for the artworks installed outdoors to make themselves visible—generally the thorn in the side of the whole show. “We need to be more adventurous with our heritage,” said Asim Waqif, who had assembled the bones of a house from scrap timber found at the palace. But contemporary art can’t compete with the color, chaos, and mystery of daily life here. It can only hope to merge, which is exactly what happened when the Nigerian artist Jelili Atiku sent out a fez-topped band of face-painted drummers and acrobats, the Dakka Marrakchia, to lead the art crowd on a procession through the streets of the Medina—at rush hour yet. Their destination was Dar Si Saïd, the Moroccan crafts museum (another biennial venue), and along the way they picked up a thickening swarm of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists forced to join the parade, as there was no way around it.

Left: Dealer Curt Marcus and television producer Jill Green. Right: Marrakech Biennale general director Stefan Holwe.


This was definitely not normal, even for Marrakech. It was fabulous. The drumbeat, if not the parade, continued inside the museum, where the hands of Gnawa musicians, their bodies hidden behind gallery walls and their hands protruding through holes in them, tapped out a staccato rhythm on a snare drum or the hand cymbals they were holding. This was the work of Gabriel Lester, one of seventeen biennial artists, including Adriana Lara, Walid Raad, and Sandra Niessen, making interventions within the museum. The woodpecker-like stork sounds of Turkish artist Cevdet Erek’s 4 Sounding Dots and a Shade—part of his effective installation in the underground caverns of the El Badi Palace’s onetime prison—resounded in the museum’s leafy courtyard, where I found luxury hotelier Meryanne Loum-Martin and video artist Shezad Dawood among more familiar faces belonging to Gagosian Rome director Pepi Marchetti Franchi, Thyssen-Bornemisza Contemporary Art founder Francesca Thyssen, Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar, Fiorucci Art Trust founder Nicoletta Fiorucci, and the dealers Paul-Aymar Mourgue d’Algue and Kate McGarry.

After wandering through the galleries and identifying biennial works among the museum’s ceramics, metalworks, and carpets, we all trouped to the former Bank Al Maghrib on Jemaa El Fna Square, the central plaza and marketplace of old Marrakech. By now, evening was coming on, and in the evenings, the chained monkeys, the storytellers, trinket-sellers, Gnawa players and tourists give way to the people of Marrakech, who throng the steaming food stalls and hang out till midnight. Sebti brought me to the roof of a café to watch the transformation from day to night. It was magical. Really.

For Branson, it was important to involve the conservative local population in the biennial. At the bank building that night, her dream came true. “This is what it’s all about,” she said, beaming, as people who had never come face to face with contemporary art streamed in with their families and friends. Curiosity may have brought them to the bank, which had long been closed, along with the opening-day free admission. But their eye-opening experience inside kept them coming.

Left: Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary project director Markus Reymann and collector Francesca Thyssen. Right: Artist Max Boufathal.


A crowd formed immediately around a sculpture by the Belgian-born artist Eric van Hove, now resident in Marrakech. Resting on a kind of bier placed front and center was an exact, jewel-like replica of a Mercedes-Benz V12 engine, each of its 465 distinct parts handmade in fifty-three different materials—ceramics, animal fossils, goatskin, tin, bone, terra-cotta—by fifty-seven top Moroccan artisans that van Hove had sought out. Talk about heritage. And people did.

In another room, a Muslim woman was engaged in a heated argument with family members and the two curators who oversee the Alliances Foundation’s sculpture park in Casablanca. The family had been watching Visions of Paradise, an hour-long documentary by Dutch artist Anne Verhoijsen. To make the film, Verhoijsen went around the world asking people for their definition of paradise. For this woman, there is only one paradise, that of Allah. She felt it was dangerous to expose her children to the secular fantasies Verhoijsen had gathered. The visitor didn’t know that the woman watching intently from the back of the room was the artist. “This is what’s great about these sorts of biennales,” Verhoijsen said. “They take you out of your comfort zone.”

Propelled out of the square past “post-conceptualist” Saâdane Afif’s public geometry lesson and a “performance” involving a herd of live sheep, I paid a young man to walk me through to Ksour Agafay, the sixteenth-century riad where Thyssen was holding a dinner for the Freq_Out gang. (“Being alone in the Medina can be overwhelming,” the artist Izhar Patkin had told me. He was right.) Among the guests were the onetime punk performer Judy Nylon (currently a participant in the Aether9 collaborative production of real time–streamed art), Berlin dealer Michael Ruiz, and Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff,

Maybe it was jet lag, or culture shock, or both, but what might have felt samo at home became strangely disorienting in these environs. Next morning, Michelangelo Pistoletto discussed his obsession with infinity at El Fenn, followed by a conversation between Rupert Everett and British writer Anthony Horowitz. “I’m dying to be a movie star,” he said. “Being gay in the movie business is tough.” After that, the intrepid among us made the hour-long drive to the Agafay desert outside the city. There, with the snow-capped Atlas Mountains rising behind it, the skeleton of an enormous steamship teetering atop a lower mountain came into view. It was the work of Russian artist Alexander Ponaromev, who had directed Berber craftsman to remake the Costa Concordia—the Italian luxury liner that sank two years ago after the captain ran it aground—in bamboo.

Life in the surreal continued that evening, when some of us taxied to the opening of the Freq_Out installation—twelve electronic sound works, each programmed on site in a different frequency and combined to generate a single composition—in the eerie, concrete darkness of the Theatre Royal. The Brutalist pile was built over sixteen years, its construction stopped in 2001, when it became apparent that the beautiful, curving tiers would face away from the stage. The acoustics, however, were magnificent.

Call this the sound-art biennial. The next morning, back at El Fenn, I met Clara Meister, a Berlin-based artist whose project Singing Maps and Underlying Melodies instructed visitors to walk through the Medina by following “audible signs”—performances by a variety of Moroccan singers and musicians—indecipherable map in hand. A fascination with Moroccan music, Meister said, inspired this “sensory form of navigation” but I missed it, because artist-skier Angelo Bellobono and his “Atla(s)Now” project’s “embedded” curator Allessandro Facente were waiting to take English film producer Aine Marsland and a dozen strangers on a hike through three Berber villages in the (very) High Atlas Mountains, where they had been holding workshops for young men in each.

Left: Artist Asim Waqif. Right: Dealer Lorenzo Fiaschi and artist Michaelangelo Pistoletto.


The chilly evening was spent on the roof of the nomadic van Hove’s studio and apartment, warming hands near the fire he used to grill chicken and lamb for the group of artist, writer, and architect friends who kept dropping in. The party set me up for a morning romp through the souk, returning afterward to the El Badi Palace for a brief but memorable performance by Yassine Balbzioui, who violently rummaged through a slew of masked identities created with duct tape, feathers, paint, and eggs. Watching him—and he is an artist to watch—was Hamid Fardjad, a legendary filmmaker and teacher who collaborated with Shirin Neshat on nine different projects.

Sunset brought van Hove’s dealer Rocco Olacchio—his Voice Gallery is virtually the only game in town—to the openings of exhibitions organized at L’Blassa, an abandoned Deco apartment building in French Colonial Gueliz, aka the New City. If only the rest of the biennial had been as spirited and political as this, and as filled with young upstarts who would feel right at home in Bushwick. (One included Branson’s Mint Collective–artist daughter, Florence Devereux, who acted as an organizing curator here). Some of the best projects I saw in Marrakech were in these shows, but the humdinger was “Pimp My Garbage,” a fully immersive and pointed installation of sculpture, furniture, and collage that the four-person Z’Bel Manifesto Collective (Ghislane Sahli, Kabia Sahli, Saad Alami, and Othman Zine) made entirely with nonbiodegradable plastics.

Khalidi escorted me to a private dinner party in the Medina, where we met up with Assif at the modernist home of collectors Jean-Michel and Charlotte Attal. Other Europeans were there, some of them grumbling about the miniscule VIP program. “We each paid a thousand euros to come to this biennale,” said one. “We are looking for substantial art. We want to see content!” When I left to pack for the trip home, the other guests were dancing a wild hora.

If that’s not content, I don’t know what is.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Performers Dakka Marrakchia in the Marrakech Biennale opening parade. Right: Artist Cevdet Erek.


Global Affair

Dubai
03.27.14

Left: Curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Adam Szymczyk, Okwui Enwezor, and Catherine David. Right: Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)


A FRIEND WHO goes to far more art fairs than I do once told me the atmosphere of Art Dubai was so gauche and ostentatious that it made the flash of Art Basel Miami Beach look as bookish as Documenta. A curator for a mainstream American museum, he meant it in a disparaging way, of course, and for a good long decade, Dubai has inspired exactly that animosity and ill will. It is in many ways a fake and wretched place, and Dubai bashing is not only easy but also self-evident. The rest of my friends—including those who live there, grew up there, and have gone there for work, autonomy, or escape—tend to skip the polemics, save the withering language, and shorthand the whole discussion to “Dumbai.”

On the merits of Art Dubai in relation to the competition, there are those who know better. I can only really compare the fair to itself. I remember very well how the majority of participating galleries brought something gold to sell in 2007, when Art Dubai first sputtered off the ground as the Gulf Art Fair—and everyone imagined that it would fail. From a later edition, I still have a Khalid Mezaina–designed “Khalid Says Relax” T-shirt, from the fair’s DBX pop-up shop, and a fine metaphor for a time when all of Dubai had been knocked down by the financial crisis. In that uneasy lull, the fair had begun supporting local talent (in art and design alike) by nurturing a slew of noncommercial projects on the side. It is not insignificant that Art Dubai’s current director, Antonia Carver, came wholly from that side, and has continued to develop (and find outside funding for) educational and curatorial programs that are as responsive to the local community as they are plain in their purpose of window-dressing the down-and-dirty business of the fair.

Left: Michèle Lamy and fashion designer Rick Owens. Right: Sharjah Art Foundation deputy director Reem Shadid, Sharjah Museums department director general Manal Ataya, and Sharjah Art Foundation director Hoor al-Qasimi.


What makes the earlier analogy confusing to me now, and possibly obsolete, is the fact that this year, the uncontested highlight of Art Dubai, which ran through the third week of March, was actually a conversation about Documenta, which brought Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, and Adam Szymczyk—artistic directors of Documenta 10 (1997), Documenta 11 (2002), and Documenta 14 (forthcoming in 2017), respectively—to the stage of the Global Art Forum, the fair’s annual talks program. Moderated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, they engaged in a completely serious, totally generous exchange of ideas on how shifts in the curatorial craft are woven through Documenta’s past, present, and future, and through the event’s relationship to the wider world. Even on the other side of the all-powerful profit margin, in the depths of the sales halls, the real discovery, in the booth of London’s Grosvenor Gallery and coinciding with a stunning retrospective that just opened in neighboring Sharjah, was the rigorous and playful work of minimalist sculptor Rasheed Araeen, best known until now as the founder of Third Text. To call Art Dubai a thinking man’s art fair, as the Art Newspaper did last week, might go a touch far—seeing a painting by the vastly overrated Ahmed Alsoudani on one side of Gladstone’s booth, a brass concave dish by Anish Kapoor on the other, spoke of baser instincts on display. But nothing about Art Dubai’s eighth year out was outrageously dumb or vulgar.

Still, the fair does bear the inevitable burden of being twinned, by scheduling convention, to programming in Sharjah, where the Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) is working with very different stakes and on a much more intimate scale. This time around, Art Dubai followed SAF’s annual March Meeting, an event of dramatically uneven quality in the past that was exceptionally strong this year, buttressed by a slate of new exhibitions, all solo shows delving into the art of Araeen, Wael Shawky, and Abdullah Al Saadi, among others. Tightly focused on artists and their work and closely tied to curator Eungie Joo’s forthcoming biennial, which opens in Sharjah this time next year, the March Meeting cultivated a spirit of genuine critical inquiry, alongside palpable urgency and a strong sense of problem-solving, boundary-breaking purpose. To go from there to the fair was schizophrenic. Even the Global Art Forum—beautifully arranged by Shumon Basar, Omar Berrada, and Ala Younis—came across like a canned, clipped, overly stage-managed daytime talk show by comparison. A curator from Istanbul, moving from one city to the other, said that after an “inspiring” and “amazing” March Meeting in Sharjah, “Dubai feels like a joke.” Harsh? Yes. True? Absolutely.

Left: Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan with Abraaj Group Art Prize curator Nada Raza. Right: Dealer Claudia Cellini of the Third Line in Dubai with artist Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars.


And yet, Art Dubai made some robust structural changes this year, many of which were intended to encourage serious and sustained engagements with artists, one at a time and with history in mind. I caught up with the fair on Tuesday morning, when I slipped into a surprisingly well-attended press conference just as Fred Sicre, managing director of the Abraaj Group, Art Dubai’s primary corporate sponsor, was dropping the phrase “empowering potential” a dozen times or more. Then he raised eyebrows around the room announcing a shakeup to the annual Abraaj Group Art Prize. Instead of awarding $100,000 apiece to five artists for the production of new work, as of next year, Abraaj will limit the prize to $100,000 for just one artist, putting the rest of the money toward a scholarship fund. Instead of enlisting a curator to shepherd a handful of works to completion and assemble a group show, he or she will now be tasked with placing a single project in the context of the winning artist’s work over time—“to show the artist’s journey,” said Sicre.

From the beginning, Art Dubai has set itself up in the sprawling Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, which a colleague from London once described to me as a sci-fi simulation of Venice, Las Vegas, and some lost or imagined city in China (replete with lagoons, canals, islands, bridges, boats, and a fleet of bleeping golf carts). Now the fair is split in two, with contemporary on one side, near the souk and Madinat Jumeirah proper, and modern on the other, in another hotel, Mina A’Salam, which is closer to the beach. With just eleven booths tucked into a quiet (“too quiet,” reported one dealer), cream-colored, wall-to-wall carpeted room, the modern section consisted solely of one- or two-artist presentations. The idea, said Carver, was about “getting to know an artist’s practice,” identifying “the tipping points in their careers,” and following them “from emerging to more mature.”

Left: Dealers Conor Macklin and Charles Moore of London’s Grosvenor Gallery. Right: Artist, curator, and Global Art Forum codirector Ala Younis with playwright Sulayman al-Bassam.


“Art Dubai has become a point of discovery for the Arab world, opening to Asia and also to the art scenes of Africa. This makes it one of the most globalized fairs in the world,” Carver explained, using terms like “collegiate,” “investigative,” and “exploratory” to describe the working method of her team. “Dubai has been a trading city for such a long time. Now we see this running through the cultural sphere, not only in the exchange of ideas, but also in the production of ideas. That’s an important shift,” she said, and then dispatched us all to the preview: eighty-five galleries, thirty-four countries, over five hundred artists (“half of them women,” she said, “which is indicative of the art world here and in the region”), and some forty to forty-five million dollars in art for sale.

By evening, the press preview morphed into the patrons’ preview, and the sad rumpled clothes of the critics’ corps gave way to some audacious finery, decadent jewels, and copious champagne. Perched at one of the magazine booths, I watched a succession of tribes go by: a blur of men in white thobes; Eungie Joo and her crew from Sharjah (including M+ curator Doryun Chong and the artists Danh Vo, Haegue Yang, and Eric Baudelaire); and the designer Rick Owens surrounded by five black-clad beauties—men, women, expertly draped, drifting slow figure eights around Michèle Lamy, Owens’s strikingly face-tattooed and arm-bangled partner, and a young lanky soul, totally androgynous, lagging behind in a pink leather ball gown.

Over a low-key dinner, some Europeans—a dealer, two museum directors, and a delightfully undiplomatic lawyer—pondered the problems of dirty money, conflicts of interest, and an unregulated art market. (Later, an Iraqi gallery owner laid out her own spectrum of dubious wealth: arms, drugs, and blood diamonds were very bad; pharmaceuticals were on the fence; tax evasion and corruption through contracting and procurement were unremarkable; robber barons and industry titans were business as it’s always been.) Festivities like these are essential ingredients in the fair’s social mucilage, and throughout the week there were dinners at Pierchic for Abraaj and Marian Goodman (ahead of her London gallery opening next fall); lunches at the beachside home of collector Dana Farouki for the New Museum and the Delfina Foundation; and ritual outings to the older, more threadbare districts of Dubai for Pakistani kebabs and dance parties at the Eritrean Social Club, notoriously creepy but loved by all.

Left: Artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective. Right: Art Dubai Projects curator Fawz Kabra with artist Mounira al-Solh.


On Wednesday, the Global Art Forum—taking on histories, timelines, and pivotal dates—got off to a rocky start. Salem al-Moosa, a businessman, was affable enough on the ad hoc development of Dubai in the 1970s. But then he veered off into jaggedly jingoistic terrain. “The rulers of the Emirates and Kuwait were builders,” he said. “Go elsewhere in the Arab world and you find only demolishers. In Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. In Egypt, they only just saved their necks.” Then, in lieu of questions (this forum’s existential weakness), he screened an infomercial for Falconcity, some real-estate folly with a fake Paris, a fake New York, and—because those bombastic builders can’t help but envy those bad-ass demolishers—a fake Beirut. Appalling, I thought. “Scandalous,” said a curator beside me. “And please, they’ve demolished plenty in Kuwait,” said an artist (from Kuwait) behind us. Saving that fumble was a formidable session on the fourteenth-century scholar Ibn Khaldun, where Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective very delicately turned Moosa’s talk around to consider the day laborers and construction workers who did (and still do) the actual, back-breaking building on the ground.

On Thursday, Documenta reigned supreme. On Friday, I wondered: How’s business? Dealers across the board told me it had been quiet and slow, with a lot of works on reserve but few confirmed sales. “On the first day, it was like selling bread,” said one. “But we haven’t sold anything since then.” Several gallery owners told me they’d sold nothing from their booths but had made sales from their stock. Institutional interest had been high, particularly in the modern section. “But it takes time,” said one dealer who has been participating in Art Dubai for seven years. “You have to stick it out.” “The big curators came by,” said another, name-checking Obrist, Enwezor, and Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. “They are friends. We have a nice chat. But the curiosity of the younger curators is less.” She paused. Did it make any sense to use the energy of those curators as indicators of the fair’s success or failure? Why had their curiosity waned? Had the promise of emerging markets dimmed in Art Dubai’s time, coinciding as it has with the fall of the BRICs and the MINTs, the rise of the Fragile Five, and troubled economies all around? “It couldn’t last,” the dealer said finally. “The fashion for art from these parts of the world had to end.” And in her voice, I thought I heard something that sounded like relief.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Left: Carnegie International curator Tina Kukielski with MoMA curator Eva Respini. Right: Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick with MACBA director Bartomeu Marí.


Water’s Edge

Sydney
03.24.14

Left: Artist Ignas Krunglevicius. Right: Writer Daniel Palmer, Biennale of Sydney curator Juliana Engberg, and artist Mathias Poledna. (All photos: Anthony Byrt)


SYDNEY IS A BRISTLING harbor city that evolved as a haphazard solution to nineteenth-century economic questions—build fast and build close to the water, to get stuff, and people from all over the world, in and out as quickly as possible. Despite its being one of the region’s most contemporary cities, you can still feel its colonial pulse: the crush of people from all over Asia and the Pacific, the heat, the ever-present potential for violence, and the constant, unavoidable relationship with the water. For several iterations now, the Biennale of Sydney has placed the city’s frontier past at its heart by using Cockatoo Island, in the middle of Sydney Harbor, as one of its major venues. “Cockatoo,” as Sydney-siders call it, has at various times been a brutal prison, a “reform school” for young women who’d ended up on the wrong side of the law, and a major shipbuilding yard. It’s a physical encapsulation of Sydney’s violent trajectory, and one still deeply scarred by it, both psychically and architecturally.

Curator Juliana Engberg does psychogeography well, so the scale of the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney, its utilization of Cockatoo, and its interaction with its host city, were always going to be welcome tests of her abilities. It was also clear from the very first press release that “You Imagine What You Desire” was going to be a classically Engbergian show: romantic, affective, and charged with erotic encounter. As Engberg said to me, she’d wanted to “unleash some energy,” activating the biennial’s multiple sites and creating poetic links across Sydney. Indeed, in her address at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Wednesday night, she spoke openly and passionately about metaphor and the sublime. The night before, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, she’d delved briefly into Prometheus and classical mythology. And on stage with Douglas Gordon for the keynote on Friday evening, she spoke of sin, fairy tales, and archetypes.

Left: Artist Shannon Te Ao. Right: Artist Callum Morton.


Throughout the vernissage week, I heard people refer to her time and again as an “artist’s curator.” It was clear, from the artists and the projects she’d selected, that she’d also wanted to create an “artist’s Biennale,” and that she wasn’t going to take a backward emotional step. The show is full of big video from the likes of Gordon, Pipilotti Rist, Wael Shawky, and Yael Bartana. Alongside the big video is big sound: Rufus Wainwright’s unmistakable voice in Gordon’s Phantom, 2011; Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s eerie This Is Before We Disappear from View, 2014; the brutal sound track of Ignas Krunglevicius’s excellent Interrogation, 2009; and the remarkable interaction between the sounds of children and geothermal energy in Mikhail Karikis’s Children of Unquiet, 2013–14—to name just a few examples. There are also strong contributions from Australasian artists, with several important figures such as Callum Morton, Mikala Dwyer, and Susan Norrie included alongside comparative newcomers from the region like Angelica Mesiti, Joseph Griffiths, and Shannon Te Ao. The opening events seemed to have been planned with the same undulation between grandeur and intimacy that the work displayed, with large-scale official openings often followed by smaller “artist parties”—access to which was staunchly policed by well-intentioned but slightly scary young PR staffers, armed with tablets and guest lists.

But this was never going to be an opening week about parties. It was going to be about Engberg’s curatorial agenda and how it held up in the wake of the events leading up to the biennial, which had threatened to scupper the entire show. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, and in particular “boat people” who pay human traffickers to put them on overcrowded, unseaworthy crafts bound for Australia’s coastline, has become one of the country’s most divisive issues. When it emerged that one of the biennial’s major corporate sponsors, Transfield, was involved in Australia’s controversial offshore detention centers for asylum seekers, around half of the participating artists signed an open letter requesting that the biennial sever its ties with the company, arguing that it put them in a “chain of connections that links to human suffering.” The pressure increased dramatically when a riot on February 17th at the Manus Island facility left one person dead and many others injured. The irony that Cockatoo was once an island detention center itself wasn’t lost on many of the artists scheduled to exhibit there. There were calls for a boycott, which led to nine artists withdrawing.

Left: Dealer Vasili Kaliman and artist Jess Johnson. Right: Callum Morton's The Other Side.


The letter and the boycott, heartfelt though they were, placed a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” cloud over everyone involved. Several artists who’d decided to stay in the show spoke off-the-record of the immense pressure they’d been placed under to withdraw. The standoff also inadvertently oversimplified a remarkably complex issue that all of us in the art world have to take a position on: not the detention centers, which are a horrific response to a humanitarian problem, but global art money’s relative cleanliness. Then there is the fact that a huge amount of arts funding in Australia, including for the biennial, comes from the Australia Council, which in turn is funded by the Australian government—the same one implementing the detention-center policy. The dispute may also have a nasty tail for the future of the biennial. In early March, one government minister, speaking on national radio, labeled the protest an act of “vicious ingratitude,” while the Federal Arts Minister called for a change in the Australia Council’s mandate, which would see recipients of funding penalized for turning down corporate sponsorship on “unreasonable” grounds.

In the end, a temporary fix came not from the artists but from the biennial board, when it announced that the biennial would immediately cut its financial ties with Transfield, and that it had accepted the resignation of the board’s chairman, Transfield’s Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. It was a workaround that didn’t leave anyone—including the protesting artists —looking particularly good. Belgiorno-Nettis’s family had been instrumental figures in the Biennale of Sydney for decades, so while for some participants his resignation illustrated the power of protest, for others it left a lingering, sour taste. But it did at least open a pressure valve that enabled the biennial to get back on track. Nonetheless, there was a residual electricity from these events that couldn’t be avoided throughout the opening week. The huge media turnout for the preview suggested that this biennial was about more than just art. Belgiorno-Nettis was pointedly thanked in several opening speeches. The roars and hoots of support for Engberg each time she spoke seemed as much for her stoicism as her curatorial vision. A few boycotters had returned, and a handful of artists, including an anonymous contributor at AGNSW quoting Edward Said in bright neon, had attempted to address the asylum issue head-on in their work. Perhaps the least helpful consequence was that some vernissage attendees seemed to think Engberg’s show was without polemic; an unfair characterization of an intelligent, sensual exhibition marked by many moments of transformative, disruptive power.

Douglas Gordon’s keynote address on Friday night offered one final opportunity to prove that art doesn’t have to be didactic to be political. Gordon and Engberg opted for a loose, conversational format, which started stutteringly and quickly became awkward. Several moments hovered on the brink of revelation: the significance of tears, reflections on the difference between faith and belief, accounts of early visual experiences, disclosures of childhood traumas. It felt like we were close to making an important discovery, not only about Gordon’s work, but also about Engberg’s curatorial logic. Ultimately, though, Gordon didn’t seem to want to play ball, evading solid answers and leaving half-formed provocations hanging uncomfortably in the air. If his erratic performance was deliberate, it was the wrong approach, and in the end it was a relief—probably for Engberg as much as anyone else—when they left the stage. But whatever else you could say about it, it was unmissable, and a fittingly bizarre end to a strange, charged week. Engberg, with the help of Gordon and her other artists, had certainly unleashed “something”; but quite what that is, and what its consequences will be, might take us a long time to truly know.

Anthony Byrt

Left: Artist Maxime Rossi and Thierry Raspail, director of Musee d'art Contemporain de Lyon. Right: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, Martine Vledder, and artist Gabriel Lester.


Everyone’s a Critic

Beirut
03.17.14

Left: Bidoun senior editor Negar Azimi with writer Rayya Badran. Right: Art historian and October editor David Joselit. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)


ALTHOUGH IT SLIPPED into the same week as the Whitney Biennial, the Armory Show, a fistful of ancillary fairs, and the start of the spring season for virtually all of New York’s galleries and museums, the opening of “Critical Machines,” an exhibition and conference on the future of art magazines (in print and online), faced its toughest competition from none of those mainstream art-world monoliths. What pulled people away from an otherwise erudite encounter with the editors of October, Cabinet, Bidoun, e-flux, Ibraaz, and Red Thread, among others, was a single political protest, which brought several thousand demonstrators to Beirut’s National Museum to show their support for legislation against domestic violence in Lebanon. Cross five thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean, Iberian Peninsula, and Mediterranean Sea, and you’re a world away, not only in terms of geography but also with regard to how art, politics, and activism are calibrated in relation to everyday life.

It should be said from the start that “Critical Machines” was not really about criticism, narrowly defined as the thing writers do for the arts pages of daily newspapers, monthly magazines, or quarterly journals (often in the midst of other things such as old-fashioned storytelling and fact-finding reportage). Nor was it really about criticality, that elusive quality of an artist’s method that makes his or her work seem rough, urgent, and relevant, as opposed to pretty, soothing, or palliative. Rather, the show (featuring two collectives, four artists, seventy-nine books, and thirty-six magazines, manifestos, and digital files) and the talks (four panel discussions covering sixteen publications and twenty-four speakers) were more vaguely about critique in the Kantian sense.

Perhaps that makes it sound like a dreadful endeavor, but it wasn’t. It’s just that the whole thing was most illuminating and insightful when it wandered off course and bumped into other issues. For instance, how have writers, editors, and publishers been dealing with contemporary art in the midst of revolution and counterrevolution in Cairo? One answer came from the tough-willed journalist Lina Attalah, who started the online newspaper Mada Masr when her former employer pulled the plug on Egypt Independent, the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm. What about before and after the Gezi uprising in Istanbul? Here, Erden Kosova, an articulate critic and former anarchist who worked on three issues of the WHW-founded journal Red Thread, described collective attempts to bring contemporary art and radical politics together as a total, unmitigated failure. Or in close proximity to the civil war in Syria? Delving into that dilemma were the artist and critic Roy Dib, who writes for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which tends to side with Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in everything but its cultural coverage, and, somewhat more subtly, Anton Vidokle, through the experience of e-flux journal taking up temporary residence in Beirut.

Left: Mada Masr editor Lina Attalah. Right: Critic and Red Thread editor Erden Kosova.


A number of the usual binaries—global and local, center and periphery, modern and contemporary, leftist and neoliberal—by necessity broke down. And not for nothing did the organizers, Octavian Esanu and Angela Harutyunyan, note the definition of critical machines (machines designed to monitor and report on other machines in a given industrial production process), and then say of their subject: “Art criticism needs to introduce a degree of foreignness, an alien element—be it in the form of new discursive units, critical approaches, or reference points—precisely in order to guarantee” that the various systems we have for the production of meaning will function better, and, if we are lucky or smart, in constantly self-adjusting, self-improving ways.

The exhibition component of “Critical Machines,” with works by Art + Language, the Freee Art Collective, Burak Arikan, Vadim Zakharov, Khalil Rabah, and the pseudonymous Janah Hilwé, opened at the American University of Beirut on a quiet Thursday evening, and the conference spun quickly through the next two days. A decent-size crowd drifted in and out of the discussions but never quite reached critical mass—in part because the overlap of artists, students, and activists is, locally speaking, considerably bigger on the Venn diagram of women’s rights than it is for academia, but also because for everyone but students, teachers, and staff, AUB’s campus is technically closed. One of the most beautiful spots in all of Beirut, it is a lush green lung for the city perched on a hill overlooking the sea. AUB has seen plenty of learning over the 149 years since its founding, but it was a highly politicized, often volatile place during Lebanon’s civil war. (In 1984, the university’s president, Malcolm Kerr, a renowned scholar, was assassinated outside of his office. In 1991, a huge car-bomb blast destroyed AUB’s main administrative building and iconic nineteenth-century clock tower.) Look the part, pretend you own the place, and usually, you can walk right in, regardless of your affiliation's being formal or not. But on days of heightened security—many in Lebanon of late, given the rash of recent explosions—it can take a doubled-down effort to argue your way past the guards. That, over time, makes for a not insignificant psychological barrier, fortified, of course, by perceptions of wealth, privilege, and class.

Left: Artist and Al-Akhbar critic Roy Dib with Cabinet editor D. Graham Burnett. Right: Artist and Gahnama-e-Hunar editor Rahraw Omarzad.


With not that but other, equally complex and traumatized histories of, say, postwar American and European modernism in mind, David Joselit set the tone of the conference with a lively, clear-sighted, utterly fair defense of October—what it does, how it works, and why it lasts. “I am a child of October,” confessed the art historian and AUB professor Rico Franses, before paraphrasing another panelist, Sven Spieker, of the journal ARTMargins, and adding, “but it seems October is the father who must be killed. Do we all need to go against October?” To which Joselit replied: “We’re associated with a certain power structure in American academia, and that’s why there’s a certain Oedipal pushback. At any American academic conference you hear a certain vilifying of October. And that’s fine. But there’s also a constant necessity to think and revise what serious scholarship of the modern means. A lot of artists, critics, and art historians,” he added, think that bashing the art-historical journal of record gives them “a free pass to forget about the past.”

Spieker addressed how his journal has picked up the story of modernism’s diverse and uneven development abroad, outside of the US and Europe. Vidokle spoke of the many desires to escape the art world’s market-driven structures, and illustrated almost as many strategies for doing so (covering e-flux journal’s annual budget of $350,000 exclusively through the e-flux announcement service—no subscribers, no advertisers, no mercurial patrons, no restrictive grants—being among the most impressive). In the end, he said, “Art doesn’t produce value so much as consciousness.” Vardan Azatyan, meanwhile, of the Yerevan, Armenia–based magazine Arteria, developed his own theory of “the romanticism of necessity and the necessity of romanticism,” particularly in the face of a sizable (meaning total) funding gap.

Left: ARTMargins editors Sven Spieker and Angela Harutyunyan. Right: Artist Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat? with artist and e-flux founder Anton Vidokle.


And so, money and funding. To what extent do they determine the format of art magazines today? To a very large extent, it seems, particularly if you are an academic journal supported by an academic press. “Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean you are free,” said Joselit. “With that kind of funding model, you are limited to a certain kind of writing, academic writing,” said Spieker, which is a problem if you are trying to foster other kinds of writing. “Once you step outside of academia, it becomes exploitative,” Spieker explained, because ARTMargins, like most academic journals, doesn’t pay. Likewise, everyone who works for October, with the exception of a part-time managing editor, does so as a volunteer. “But all of our editors have good academic jobs,” Joselit stressed. E-flux, by contrast, makes a point of paying everyone, from writers and editors to proofreaders.

The conversations got slightly less structural and more narrative from there. The Palestinian artist Shuruq Harb, who had to Skype in from Amman, Jordan, when a visa for Lebanon proved impossible to attain, told the story of Art Territories, an online journal that follows a chain of associations and interviews among artists, exclusively. Attalah told the story of Mada Masr (including what sounded like a mind-blowing workshop with the artist Adelita Husni Bey on the trickiness of terms and naming conventions, i.e., call it a “revolution” or “coup”?). Negar Azimi told the story of Bidoun (to disclose, a magazine I’m part of and consider my home). And then Rahraw Omarzad told the pretty incredible story of Gahnama-e-Hunar, an Afghan art magazine that came into being after Omarzad, a painter, started to write, got arrested and thrown in jail, sought refuge for years in Peshawar, opened an art space in Kabul, and started a publication for the primary purpose of giving artists a space in print to tell their friends and colleagues that they were still alive. To a few of our cynical questions about Documenta 13’s tourism in Kabul, he said with sincerity that the workshops were great, as was the attention for something, anything other than war.

D. Graham Burnett, a history of science professor at Princeton, pegged the founding of Cabinet to a famous rift between André Breton and Roger Caillois over a handful of Mexican jumping beans that Caillois wanted to cut open. (Breton refused, citing the need to save their magic and mystery.) Dmitry Vilensky gave an account of Chto Delat?’s newspaper (also called Chto Delat?). Kosova described the rise and fall of Red Thread, and deemed contemporary art a lost cause. “I don’t know how we should continue,” he said of the journal, which is effectively dead. “We definitely need a revision in our structure and a deep labor in our thinking.”

Left: Anthony Downey of Ibraaz with art historian and AUB professor Rico Franses. Right: AUB Art Galleries curator Octavian Esanu.


Then, with much humor, Esanu stepped in and stunned everyone by saying: “Chto Delat? does this militant, Bolshevik, fuck-you kind of art. Art Leaks,” from Romania, “is like Occupy. Change. Obama. Red Thread is a mess. Art and the Public Sphere is responding to Thatcherite England.”

“I’m a Marxist,” quipped Mel Jordan, who edits Art and the Public Sphere.

“You also say you’re an artist,” said Esanu. “Marx said you have to be a farmer during the day and a poet at night, so this thing about being an artist makes no sense.” Addressing everyone with equal parts challenge and mischief, he asked: “Are you connected to any political avant-garde? Or are you just the avant-garde for the art world?” Jaws dropped. Then, just as playfully, Vilensky asked: “Do you see any political avant-garde in evidence? Does it exist?” No one needed to say no. The answer was there, thick in the room.

After “Critical Machines” was over, I lingered for a while on the steps of Ada Dodge Hall with the writers Rayya Badran and Ghalya Saadawi, the curator Amanda Abi Khalil, and the artists Haig Aivazian and Roy Dib. As we tried to make sense of a garish new building on the AUB campus by Zaha Hadid (an esteemed alumna who majored in math), which is perched somewhat awkwardly among historical structures, the prospects seemed dim for finding a political avant-garde close by. “How come there weren’t more artists here?” I asked of no one in particular. “They’re all at the protest,” said everyone all at once, as we squinted at the sea, shifted our weight, looked down at our feet, and frowned.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Circle of Life

New York
03.14.14

Left: Collector Glenn Fuhrman and dealer Monika Sprüth. Right: Dealers Jay Gorney, Markus Rischgasser, and Eva Presenhuber.


EVERYONE SAYS the Armory Show is dreadful. Yet, said dealer Monika Sprüth of Cologne and London, “Everyone’s here. All of the important collectors.” As if on cue, Glenn Fuhrman stopped in, casting a furtive eye around the Sprüth Magers booth, where new, LA-based partner Sarah Watson was doing meets and greets, and hoping to settle soon on a left-coast location. “We always do well here,” said Eva Presenhuber of Zurich. An early, pre–laser printer installation by Urs Fischer held the floor, where new, New York–based partner Jay Gorney was flexing his conceptual muscle and loving it.

It was Wednesday, March 5, and the VIPs were streaming into Pier 94 for the 2014 fair’s opening day preview. By 2 PM, every aisle was jammed. There was Sofia Coppola with Judd Foundation copresident Rainer Judd. There was David Zwirner, looking over his broad slice of the pie, where he situated digital photo collages by the latest addition to his roster, Jordan Wolfson, next to longtime digital photo star Thomas Ruff. Here was Rachel Lehmann and David Maupin, looking smart against their Do-Ho Suhs, Tracey Emins, Billy Childishes, and such, as SculptureCenter director Mary Ceruti and San Francisco Art Institute president Charles Desmarais took to a corner to confer.

Solo artist presentations were in short supply at this fair—who can afford to promote a single talent on even temporary New York real estate? Marianne Boesky of New York, that’s who. Her booth was devoted to the introduction of South African artist Serge Alain Nitegeka, and for good reason. He’s personable and serious enough to have gone to the trouble of building an obstructing construction of crossed beams at the front of the stand, allowing a delicious kind of backstage entrance through a narrow passage to the exhibition of paintings based on the same Franz Klineish forms. Getting into Susanne Vielmetter of Los Angeles, on the other hand, was nigh impossible, her booth was so chock-a-block with both artworks and buyers.

Left: Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf with artist Jonathan Horowitz. Right: Artists Cindy Sherman and Nancy Dwyer.


With the Hotel Americano supplying the food this year, there was nary an empty seat in the VIP room, where the faces of two Davids—Byrne and the Whitney’s David Kiehl—appeared and disappeared in the crowd almost at once. But the packrats at the Armory paled in comparison with the personalities pouring into the salon-like kitchen of Gavin Brown’s house in Harlem that night, where he was celebrating star turns by Laura Owens, Bjarne Melgaard, Uri Aran, and Jennifer Bornstein in the current Whitney Biennial.

Brown may be the New York art world’s most prized host. Did anyone turn down this invitation? Heaven knows the guests stayed on far longer than Brown, who let the party continue well after he either went to bed or secluded himself in some private chamber to contemplate the future of his gallery, which will have lost its space on Leroy Street to developers by this time next year.

But this night was for the artists and their many friends—Adam McEwen, Ken Okiishi, Nick Mauss, Emily Sundblad, curators Neville Wakefield, Ingrid Schaffner, Alex Gartenfeld, and Fionn Meade, the twins Alex Hertling and Pati Hertling, dealers Nicky Verber and Toby Webster, collectors Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg—in other words, anyone there could drink from a fountain of the ultracool, which runneth over. But it didn’t exactly spill into the March 6 opening of “Alexander the Great: The Iolas Gallery, 1955–1987,” Paul Kasmin’s tribute to the Surrealist superdealer Alexander Iolas, which attracted an entirely different, equally suave but slightly older crowd.

Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. Right: Dealer Anton Kern and artist John Bock.


During his lifetime, the very social Iolas knew everyone and was first to introduce a number of important artists to the world over several decades. One of them was a guy from Pittsburgh named Andy Warhol. According to Bob Colacello, who wrote the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Warhol had his very first and very last shows with Iolas, and died in the same year as the dealer, 1987. “They were partners in camp,” Colacello quipped. The interior designer Jay Johnson remembers Iolas as his first employer. Introduced by Warhol and the Factory’s business manager Fred Hughes, Johnson worked in the Iolas gallery basement as a nineteen-year-old archivist, cataloguing a surpassing inventory that was rich in Surrealists.

Indeed, on the cerulean-blue walls of the Kasmin gallery are a small museum’s worth of paintings by Magritte, Brauner, Mata, Cornell, Warhol, Copley, and Ernst, and several early works by Kasmin gallery artist Francois-Xavier Lalanne—all gathered by the show’s cocurators, Vincent Fremont and Adrian Dannatt, who do not want the memory of Iolas to fade without refreshing the history. A Lalanne toilet embedded into the sculpture of a black fly, complete with toilet paper and bathroom book, attracted the most attention, though not all of it. “Where’s Harold Stevenson?” asked Peter McGough, Jacqueline Schnabel’s escort for the evening. He spotted one a moment later, on loan from dealer Mitchell Algus. “Have you seen Jules’s show?” asked Clifford Ross, referring to the Jules Olitski show opening in Kasmin’s West Twenty-Seventh Street gallery that night. “It’s a revelation.”

Friends and admirers of Sarah Lucas responded to her first show at Gladstone Gallery in New York since 1998 with similar excitement. Phallus forms abound, of course, from the giant bronze and concrete squashes to the billboard-like, peeled-banana imagery on the back gallery’s walls. The air was full of sex and dry humor. “That banana room, oh my God,” said T. J. Wilcox, who wanted a squash bench for his front yard. “I just came from Jordan Wolfson’s opening at Zwirner,” said Art Basel director Marc Spiegler. “That was sexy too, but a more digital kind of sex.”

Left: New Museum director Lisa Phillips and artist Lorna Simpson. Right: Artist Sue Tompkins with dealer Andrew Hamilton.


As the Kasmin crowd made for Indochine, Lucas fans headed for the candlelit Acme Underground, where artists Darren Bader, Rudolf Stingel, Nate Lowman, Jessica Craig-Martin, and Marianne Vitale coupled over communal food and drink with Frieze cofounder Amanda Sharp, curators Nicholas Cullinan, Massimiliano Gioni, Peter Eleey, Clarissa Dalrymple, Cecilia Alemani, dealers Bruno Brunnet, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, and Gavin Brown, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume, Lucas’s partner Julian Simmons, and more, many more. This may be the first art dinner where the artist gave the first toast. “I want to thank everyone at Barbara’s for getting this show on the road,” Lucas began. “Everyone is here for the sheer love of Sarah,” Gladstone replied. “You must come back really soon.”

With the week gathering steam, it reached a rolling boil on Friday night, when Laurie Simmons debuted a new body of work at Salon 94 Bowery. They are large-scale photographs of Cosplayers with fake hair, doll faces, and painted eyes. They’re Gillian Wearing–eerie but more alluring and slippery. People responded with a combination of raised eyebrows, staccato-blinking, and happy-to-be-in-this-club smiles. “It’s about a whole culture of dressing up,” said Rohatyn, who looked smashing dressed up in Rodarte. Sex was in the air here too. Especially same-sex. It didn’t take anyone long to note how many female couples were in attendance, including J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons and Courtney Crangi, artists Deborah Kass and Pattie Cronin, novelist A. M. Homes and producer Kathy Greenberg—and more. Everyone taking plates for the buffet dinner at Circolo enjoyed this shift in power, though there was plenty of heterosexual heft in the company of Eric Bogosian, Cindy Sherman, collector Ann Tenenbaum, critic Hal Foster, writers Lynne Tillman and Siddhartha Mukherjee, sculptors John Newman and Sarah Sze. This was the most relaxed, family-like dinner of the week. No one posing. No one putting on a social mask. No one needed to. It was liberating.

Maybe spring really was just around the corner in this prolonged, arctic winter. A new reckoning for Ross Bleckner was certainly afoot at Mary Boone in Chelsea on Saturday night, where the artist’s new paintings—a kind of retrospective of the new, as one visitor noted—was waking people up to what a seriously good painter the guy really is. Before heading to the Top of the Standard for his party above the city, I slipped into White Columns, where Sue Tompkins was giving a rare solo performance that was dancing poetry, or intermittent song with dance, or intermittent hopping while speaking repeated phrases, all quite charming and mysterious.

Left: Artists Eric Fischl and Ross Bleckner. Right: Dealer Barbara Gladstone and designer/publisher Brendan Dugan.


Calvin Klein was at the Bleckner party, with Eric Fischl, Ryan Sullivan, Fremont, Colacello, Kass and Cronin, Homes, curator Piper Marshall, Clifford Ross and… well, let’s just say the circle was unbroken.

Next afternoon, Klaus Biesenbach and Peter Eleey presided over the openings of their Christoph Schlingensief and Maria Lassnig exhibitions at MoMA PS1. The line to get in snaked out into the street, possibly because Patti Smith was about to perform as a toast to the late Schlingensief, but I like to think it’s because the word was out on the excellent, even mind-blowing combination of these two European but very different sensibilities of different generations and attitudes. The Lassnig show is a marvel; Schlingensief’s “Animatograph” carousel both difficult to take and mesmerizing at once. “He was my closest friend,” Biesenbach said, leading collector Harald Falckenberg through the show with Schlingensief’s widow, curator Aino Laberenz, who subtitled the exhibition’s films. “We did it for him.”

And the circle within a circle that is the art world did another turn, and kept spinning.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Dealer Paul Kasmin. Right: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach with artist Korakrit Arunanondchai.


Super Eight

New York
03.13.14

Left: Professor Jerome Cohen, Danwei director Jeremy Goldkorn, K11 Art Foundation chairman Adrian Cheng, Modern Media's Thomas Shao, and writer Reihan Salam. Right: Collector and Yuz Foundation founder Budi Tek and K11 Art Foundation chairman Adrian Cheng. (All Photos: Ali Pechman)


IN CHINA, perhaps even more than elsewhere, art-world power is often evinced in terms of numbers: One thinks of the country’s $14 billion art market, upward of four hundred museums built a year. On a more symbolic register, one might consider Christie’s rumored swap last fall, when the auction house changed the lot number for Francis Bacon’s $142 million triptych to China’s lucky number, eight.

Art fairs continue to give numbers the upper hand. So it was something of a relief last weekend to encounter the Armory Show’s China Symposium, eight ambitious discussions on the role of contemporary art in China, supported by Adrian Cheng and his K11 Art Foundation. The talks, organized by Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, complemented the fair’s China Focus, a showcase of Chinese galleries also selected by Tinari. At the center of his layout on the south end of Pier 94 was the Shanghai-based Xu Zhen’s Action of Consciousness, a closed-off white cube which every few minutes spat into the air one of fifty assorted art objects, aping the split-second viewings that characterize art-fair mania. The Armory Show’s choice of an artist who embraces all things commercial—Xu Zhen operates as a company under the artist’s name—seemed an inspired choice, and it was notable that Ai Weiwei was nowhere in sight. (Neither, for that matter, was Xu himself, who is afraid of flying and supervised his team remotely.) As Xu put it to me when I visited his studio in Shanghai last fall, “Ai’s busy with politics, and we’re busy making money.”

Last Friday, K11 Art Foundation kicked off the weekend at the Skylark bar. He An and Zhang Ding mingled with the Xu Zhen crowd while Huang Rui and Shen Chen recounted a drunken daylong road trip. Lu Pingyuan had just seen the Whitney Biennial: “It’s supposed to be American artists, right? And are they supposed to be young?” Anyone would have enjoyed the champagne and 1960s Chinese surf-pop juxtaposed with glittering panoramic views of uptown—that is, provided you could get in. Budi Tek, the Chinese-Indonesian farming tycoon and art collector, arrived around 11 PM, after getting stuck in a huge line outside—“…of three thousand people!” an outraged friend emphasized.

Left: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art director Philip Tinari and UCCA's Winnie Hu. Right: Scene at the Skylark.


Tek, who opens the one hundred thousand–square-foot Yuz Museum in Shanghai in May, seemed amused by the snafu. “I told them, ‘I’m Budi Tek,’ and they said, ‘Who?’ ” He laughed. “Sometimes you have to be, ah... humble!” Tinari did not have a problem getting in, arriving late after the Gagosian dinner at Carbone. (Given the weather, the Beijing car dealer Yang Bin, once ranked the second-richest person in China, had wondered what to wear to the dinner. “It’s like, wear a big white puffy jacket or something,” said the UCCA’s Winnie Hu. “Who cares? You’re Yang Bin!”)

The privileged have more to worry about than access and dress codes, of course. “I can do a lot of things as long as I don’t cross a line,” Cheng said Saturday of his art foundation, whose recent projects include a Shanghai megamall-cum-museum. “As long as we don’t cross the government,” he later clarified.

Cheng’s symposium marathon featured talks with titles like “The Big Picture,” or as Jerome Cohen, the NYU law professor and China expert, called it, “Instant China for Busy People.” A fitting observation given that Hans Ulrich Obrist, originally billed to appear on the panel, had to cancel last-minute.

Despite the recent explosion of Chinese collectors, everyone was quick to note that contemporary sales make up only about 1 percent of the Chinese art market. “Why are you still doing paintings, installations, same old same old?” Thomas Shao, president of Modern Media, rhetorically asked Chinese artists. “Why can’t someone leverage the 600 million WeChat users?” (WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp and Facebook, claims to be valued at more than $60 billion.) Those interested in hearing from artists deeply engaged in such matters might have found answers in Sunday’s “The On | Off Generation” panel moderated by Lee Ambrozy.

“American culture, there’s something about it I don’t like,” offered Shen Qibin, director of the Tianrenheyi Art Center in Hangzhou during Saturday’s “The Chinese Art World Described as a System,” ironically the most chaotic of the panels. “It’s all about muscle competition.”

Left: Xu Zhen's Alexia Dehaene and Louise Lan with Fanming Zhu. Right: Dealer Jeffrey Deitch.


Hardly a trait unique to the US, as attested to by all the flexing among private museum holders in “The Museum Boom.” The panel, which featured Wuhan Art Terminus’s Colin Chinnery, China Megacities Lab’s Jeffrey Johnson, the Sifang Art Museum’s Lu Xun, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal’s Karen Smith, and Budi Tek, drew the biggest crowd. “There’s a lot to learn,” said dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

Tek and Lu showed off their goods via PowerPoint. The Sifang, a modern Xanadu, is a resort-style 115-acre museum complex on the outskirts of Nanjing, dedicated to “the beautiful things in your life,” as Lu called them: Maurizio Cattelans, Olafur Eliassons, and Movement Field, a huge hillside of white zigzag paths by Xu Zhen. “I don’t think people need to understand it to enjoy it,” Lu said, apparently speaking of Xu. Tek said his bright-red Shanghai museum would be one of the best, most professional, most “real” museums in a country littered with cheap imitations. “But I’m not talking about the Sifang,” he quickly added. “Lu Xun and I are friends.”

On Sunday afternoon, the final panel was devoted to Xu Zhen. Project manager Alexia Dehaene gave an overview of the company’s output. This included Movement Field, which uses actual overlapping and intersecting routes taken by various political uprisings the world over. Even with Xu’s sly subversions in the spotlight, panelists invoked the same names and buzzwords: “speed,” “commercial,” “Mao,” and …oh no, there’s “Ai Weiwei” again!

“You know, I’m just going to stop it,” Tinari said, as the fair and panels wound to a close. “Every other conversation about Chinese art ends with Ai Weiwei. Why should this one be any different?”

Ali Pechman

Left: Artists Zhang Ding and He An. Right: Artists Shen Chen and Huang Rui.


Female Trouble

New York
03.11.14

Left: Artist Frances Stark and dealer Gavin Brown. Right: Dealers Nicky Verber and Ash L'Ange. (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)


THIS YEAR, Vito Schnabel decided that women are underrepresented in the art world. And so, in an act of either spirited generosity or ham-fisted tokenism, he devoted the final edition of the Brucennial—the Bruce High Quality Foundation’s ritual riposte to the Whitney Biennial—to women, somehow rounding up a whopping six hundred of them. (Anyone who applied was granted a place on the wall.)

Sadly, he couldn’t admit all to last Thursday’s opening fete. “Waiting in line for an hour and a half in the freezing cold to see my own work after not being admitted because as I am not a ‘VIP but just an artist in the show’ baffles me beyond anything else,” wrote Marlous Borm on Facebook.

“Who wants to see six hundred artists in one room? The entire concept is just demeaning to the artists,” a friend pondered as we wandered through the fifth edition of Independent, which had opened earlier that day to VIPs like Sofia Coppola, David Byrne, Maurizio Cattelan, Beatrix Ruf, Jeffrey Deitch, Kim Gordon, and David LaChapelle. For this year’s iteration, architects Andrew Feuerstein and Bret Quagliara created fork-like walls for the fair’s famously nuanced booths, aiming to emphasize the art and not the galleries.

Left: Collectors Michael Hort and Susan Hort. (Photo: Allese Thomson) Right: Dealer Andrew Kreps. (Photo: Irina Rozovsky)


“Well, we are at a fair,” responded another, gesturing at the open floor. The place was filled with sculptures and paintings, many of which take up as subjects our digital “selves,” alter egos that stimulate an insidious narcissism, one bolstered rather than undercut by a consciousness of this condition. Looking around the airy, sunlit space, one could find work by Frances Stark, who turned pictures from her Instagram account into glass plaques (Gavin Brown). There was Eloise Hawser’s scintillating 3-D prints (Balice Hertling) and Oliver Osborne’s white canvases pasted with cartoons from language books (Vilma Gold). Also Josh Kolbo’s analog photos of cigarettes and condoms printed on leather, hung like floppy banners (Société), and Brad Troemel’s large, shrink-wrapped works juxtaposing brand-identity style guides and Bitcoins (Untitled).

It wasn’t all so different from the brand-happy consumerism-of-the-moment exemplified down the street at Red Bull Studios, where DIS magazine (and friends) was launching “DISown – Not For Everyone,” an “art exhibition posing as a retail store” featuring apparel and household goods by artists like Ryan Trecartin, Bjarne Melgaard, Amalia Ulman, and Telfar. Think Simon Fujiwara’s “gay wedding rings” and Hood By Air salad bowls. Boys can aspire to domestic bliss too.

Left: John Bock's piece at Sprüth Magers's booth at Independent. Right: A visitor with Daniel McDonald's work at House of Gaga's booth at Independent. (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)


But without a doubt the one work on everyone’s lips that day was (Female figure), or as most people referred to it, “the robot”: Jordan Wolfson’s quixotic, nearly half-million-dollar animatronic sculpture, supposedly making its debut that night in his inaugural show at David Zwirner. By 7 PM hundreds of visitors were streaming into the space: There were the downtown party kids, the uptown collectors, and hordes of international dealers. In the first room were several new ink-jet prints, one depicting Peter Pan committing suicide, another Wolfson’s girlfriend, photographer Gaea Woods, styled à la Rosie the Riveter, festooned with bumper stickers reading CRIPPLED SEX and WANTING LOVE. In a back room played his 2012 film Raspberry Poser, which cuts between images of Wolfson as a waggish skinhead roaming Paris and animated, cherry-red HIV viruses bouncing about high-end department stores and the cobblestone streets of New York’s SoHo to Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You.” The robot, however, was nowhere to be found.

“They’re saying I can’t get in to see the doll,” someone said impatiently. “I need to find Jordan. Now.”

“Apparently it’s not done,” said another. “I heard David was pissed.”

As discussion of the phantom robot’s whereabouts ensued, someone whispered to artist Anicka Yi, Barneys creative director Dennis Freedman, and a well-heeled collector to “come with them.” We ducked into a tiny room. And there, washed in bright light, she stood, grinding against a mirror, styled like Cool World’s Holli Would, all blond hair and pleather thigh-high boots and white thong leotard. She was covered in scuff marks, like she’d been torn from some bombed-out sci-fi fantasy. Her eyes bulged from behind a green witch mask. Connected to the mirror by a silver pole stabbed into her stomach, she twisted her hips, thrust her arms, and shook her bleached locks to the opening chords of Lady Gaga’s “Applause.”

Left: Karma's Brendan Dugan. (Photo: Allese Thomson) Right: Photographer Gaea Woods, artist Jordan Wolfson, and dealer David Zwirner. (Photo: Scott Rudd)


“I have never seen anything like this,” said Yi. “It’s beyond art.”

“This is the kind of thing, that if I saw it as a child, would have ruined my life,” said artist Brendan Fowler.

Wolfson elicits strong reactions. He is known for his confidence, his aptitude with the fairer sex, and his talent. His sometimes brutal depictions of women and callous representations of sex (and himself) provoke defensive reactions—“Can you imagine what people would say if Dan Colen did this?” asked one. But in Wolfson’s case, these portrayals are bracketed by moments of extreme vulnerability and self-awareness; his fantasies and anxieties emerge as centerpieces in the work.

Wolfson swept into the room, walking in front of his creation: “Please turn her off. She’s not done yet. Please turn it off.”

Left: Dealer Philomene Magers. Right: Swiss Institute director Simon Castets (center) with artist Harold Ancart (right). (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)


We dispersed, reconvening later for the dinner at Frankie’s Spuntino in the West Village. There the robot was the succès de scandale, a mysterious tabloid ingénue.

“She’s incredible, the way she moves,” waxed one dapper man.

“My girlfriend has competition,” said another guy.

The woman by his side grimaced: “She is a stripper that’s been skewered by her own pole. Seriously?”

The animatronic doll may or may not have been another play on our digital mirrors, but here, at least, it felt like we weren’t at the mercy of reflections and seductive simulacra. Instead, the room was filled with smart, powerful women. There was Whitney Museum chief curator Donna De Salvo mingling with the crowd. Curator Linda Norden sat immersed in conversation with curator Piper Marshall, art historian Claire Bishop, and Parkett’s Nikki Columbus, while publisher Miriam Katzeff chatted with Yi about her upcoming museum show.

Left: Dealers Christian Nagel (left) and Saskia Draxler (center). Right: Protocinema's Mari Spirito (left). (Photos: Irina Rozovsky)


Wolfson took a curator’s hand and whispered there was something she had to see. They walked to a corner where supermodel Helena Christensen leaned languidly across a chair.

“The real thing,” breathed one.

“She’s getting older, but still a goddess,” whispered another.

Zwirner stood and raised his glass for a toast: “Jordan has taken art to another level!”

“He will be the best of our generation,” I heard.

Someone shouted out playfully from the crowd: “Hey Jordan, do you automaton?”

Maybe Frances Stark put it best in her Instagram of the robot: “We can do this sans programmers.”

Allese Thomson

Left: Artist Mark Flood. (Photo: Allese Thomson) Right: Dealer Joel Mesler of Untitled. (Photo: Irina Rozovsky)


Commercial Flair

New York
03.07.14

Left: Steve Martin with artists T. J. Wilcox and Elizabeth Peyton. Right: Dealer Lorcan O'Neill with Whitney Biennial cocurator Stuart Comer. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


THE COMMERCIAL CONFLAGRATION that is Armory Arts Week always begins with promise. This year—perhaps predictably, given the conservative profile of most art fairs—the nonprofit zone delivered on it first. The appetite whetter was MoMA’s Robert Heinecken retrospective, a revelatory show curated by Eva Respini. It gives overdue, East Coast recognition to the influential Left Coast proto-appropriationist and UCLA photography department founder—an artist’s artist if ever one was.

The Monday night opening sent paroxysms of pleasure through a photo-centric crowd that included collectors Michael and Eileen Cohen, photographers Susan Meiselas, Mitch Epstein, and Paul Graham, International Center of Photography curator Carol Squiers, and Paris Photo director Julian Frydman. As Hammer Museum director Ann Philbin was quick to note, the show travels to her institution next.

“It’s really fantastic,” said Marc Selwyn, who represents the Heinecken estate in LA, in collaboration with Mary Cherry. “It’s fantastic,” echoed Freidrich Petzel, who shows Heinecken in New York. “I worked with Robert in 1976,” veteran photo dealer Janet Borden recalled. Evidently she knew something that a lot of other people didn’t know, but it didn’t take long for first-nighters like Phil and Shelley Aarons or former New York Times photo editor Philip Gefter to see that Heinecken’s photocollages and magazine interventions anticipated the Pictures Generation strategies by twenty years.

Left: Artists Laura Owens and Emily Sundblad. Right: Dealer Lisa Spellman and artist Jacob Kassay.


With history thus nipping at our heels, I joined uptown art congregants the following evening for the forward-backward experience of the twenty-sixth annual Art Dealers of America “Art Show” at the Park Avenue Armory. Audiences here tend to be very pearls-at-the-neck, diamond-brooch-at-the-breast, and a generation or two past the lemmings streaming into the Whitney Museum that same night for the opening of this year’s biennial—the last to take place in the Marcel Breuer building before the Whitney decamps for new headquarters in the meatpacking district, designed by Renzo Piano. (What, him again?)

The Park Avenue crowd always brings a certain decorum to the ADAA show. Unlike the Whitney Biennial, it’s one that everyone loves to love. On Tuesday night, it actually felt more like a curated group exhibition than most biennials, which appear increasingly more like art-fair feeding grounds.

The modest size of the booths, and a generational shift that has turned what was a stuffy, modern/Old Master fair into an elegant contemporary one, prompted many of the seventy-two, all-American exhibitors to install one-person shows of recent art. Directly opposite the entrance, Sperone Westwater showed a knockout new group of Charles LeDray’s tiny, handmade clothing, including a rack of women’s dresses, and a delicate, daisy-chain necklace carved from human bone.

Left: Writer Julie Ault with Semiotext(e) editor Hedi El Kholti. Right: Lorraine Weinberg with Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg.


A moment later, ADAA president Dorsey Waxter waxed ecstatic about Petah Coyne’s plastic flower and stuffed peacock installation at the Lelong stand—if looks could talk, a crowd-pleaser—and told me not to miss Ann Hamilton’s live portrait studio at Carl Solway’s booth, where the artist was photographing volunteer subjects behind a translucent membrane. “Is this your art?” inquired the art lawyer John Silberman. “You are my art!” Hamilton replied. In the adjacent booth, Jacob Kassay had installed a group of shaped paintings on tan MDF board that was as cohesive a visual statement as he’s made since his dipped silver paintings. “It’s like a 1920s salon,” dealer Lisa Spellman said of the fair. “But contemporary.”

In the aisles I spotted MoMA director Glenn Lowry, art consultant Alan Schwartzman, Christie’s Bret Gorvy, and artist Philip Taaffe (who was featured at Luhring Augustine). Visiting dealer Jay Jopling, his cell phone glued to his ear, helped himself to the delicious hors d’oeuvres that are always an attraction of this fair’s gala preview, a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement, as Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky strode past and collectors Peter and Jill Kraus huddled with dealers Paula Cooper and Steve Henry. “We tried to go to the Whitney,” Kraus said, “but the line was backed up to Park Avenue—and this was just after seven o’clock.”

Personally, I was happy to keep looking around here. At Yancey Richardson’s stand, I discovered Zanele Muholi’s striking photographs of lesbian and transgender women in her native South Africa—resplendent in this refined environment. Sara VanDerBeek’s photos looked beautiful at Metro Pictures, as did Dana Schutz’s big charcoal drawings at Petzel, but the ten small portraits by Jeronimo Elespe, a former assistant to Sean Landers, sold out at Eleven Rivington before I could focus on a single one.

Left: Artist Bjarne Melgaard with Sam Kraus. Right: Novelist Colm Toibin.


The hall was filling with sharp suits and trophy jewelry when Marianne Boesky attracted a full deck of distaff collectors—Artsy LA’s Haley Rose Cohen, Art Cart founder Hannah Flegelman, and the cheerful Amy Phelan—to her booth, which presented an unknown, ballpoint pen–drawing side of painting-machine, mushroom-sculpture artist Roxy Paine. Blum and Poe continued its tasty rollout of Mono-ha works; Alexander Gray promoted early abstraction by Jack Whitten; and Stefania Bortolami put up a handsome fourth wall to support shiny stripe paintings by Daniel Buren, with Richard Aldrich paintings behind it.

With their Gaston Lachaise–Louise Bourgeois twofer, Chelsea’s John Cheim and Howard Read materialized as very smart uptown dealers, as James Cohan was invoicing Spencer Finch’s Scotch-tape cloud drawings. Laurie Simmons arrived at the Salon 94 booth just as collectors Anita Zabludowicz and Wendy Fisher were admiring her “Walking Objects” photographs, three of them never exhibited before. “I used to feel funny about the big tomato, because I was afraid it would be taken as antifeminist,” she said. “Now I don’t care. I love it.”

There were two lines of shivering contenders for the door when I arrived at the Whitney, and a long snake of a queue for the coatroom in the lobby, where director Adam Weinberg was the official greeter. Relieved from biennial duty, Donna De Salvo and Scott Rothkopf also mingled with the waves of people pouring in to see the first biennial curated totally by curators from outside institutions—the better to leave Whitney staffers free to figure out what to do with the museum’s new building.

Left: Justin Vivian Bond and Participant's Lia Gangitano. Right: Artist Ei Arakawa.


Michelle Grabner’s top floor was a veritable fun fair of art, an obstacle course of riotous color made even more impassable by all the people—so many, I wondered how there could possibly still be so many waiting outside. (It was too dark out for Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura inside the Whitney’s Cyclops window to reflect the street.) Many of those present were artists. Some, like Amy Sillman, Dawoud Bey, Alma Allen, Karl Haendel, Joel Otterson, Laura Owens, and Sterling Ruby, were in the show. Others—Rachel Harrison, Robert Longo, Lorraine O’Grady—were just visiting ghosts of biennials past. Phil Vanderhyden stood by his expert redo of the late Gretchen Bender’s forty-two-foot-long People in Pain, for my money one of the strongest works in the show. “There were eight feet I couldn’t fit on the wall,” Vanderhyden said, as former Stedelijk Museum director Ann Goldstein sidled up, recalling her own installation of the work in her seminal 1989 “Forest of Signs” exhibition at LA MoCA.

That must have been a better year for art than this one. Despite all the color and variety that Grabner brought to the floor, I had doubts that much of the work would have the Bender’s staying power if installed in a different context. Meanwhile, it was a lot of fun to negotiate the fourth floor and just enjoy the sights: Uri Aran roaming with his identical twin; Joel Otterson as delighted with his Bill Erlich diamond-and-sapphire brooch as he was with his handmade “transgender” tent of vintage gazar silk for girls; Jerry Saltz having his picture taken with Steve Martin, who said he came to the opening “just to see.”

It was so crowded that most people didn’t notice this special Oscar winner, just two days after the Oscars. But the stars here were the artists, who included a number of writers and publishers. Complaints of having to read too much were loud and perhaps not too serious, it was hard to tell. I’ll be the first to claim literature as an art, but it’s not an especially visual art and generally not one well suited for collective viewing. Yet dealer Lorcan O’Neill reported, “We’ve been getting high in the Semiotext(e) room,” evidently a covert clubhouse for pot smokers as well as a hangout for the press’s Sylvère Lotringer, performance artist Penny Arcade, and Tony Award–winning playwright and novelist Colm Tóibín.

Left: Artist Laurie Simmons, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg, and collectors Anita Zabludowicz and Wendy Fisher. Right: Dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn.


“I like the mix of cool and uncool,” said Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum director Bill Arning. “Dealers are confused. They’re saying, ‘You mean we’re supposed to be showing this stuff?’ ” That would have made Stuart Comer laugh. “Museums are in crisis,” the curator of the Biennial’s third floor said—trapped between box office–pleasing market favorites and marginalized but culture-shifting ideas.

Guards chased us out of the museum before I’d even reached Anthony Elms’s second floor, but I followed the fleet to the Carlyle Hotel, where the poet and Triple Canopy supporter Tom Healy was hosting a cocktail party to celebrate the collective’s participation in the biennial. Among the famished diving for sliders and lining up for cocktails were biennialists Julie Ault and Emily Sundblad, as well as musician-artist-collector Michael Stipe, who held down a table with the English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

“We’re going to the Toolbox,” said transgender performer Justin Vivian Bond. “You know it’s going to be trashy and ugly, and the drinks will be cheap.” Would that it could be as easy to predict where history will situate this biennial. All we can guess is that the celebrants of the next edition, downtown, will have to give up the Carlyle to settle for the Standard. Like many works in the show, it too is now for sale.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Carroll Dunham and Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Artist Frances Stark.


Left: ARCO director Carlos Urroz Arancibia. Right: A performance by Diego Bianchi. (All photos: Frank Expósito)


CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS MOVE FAST. For those dealers, collectors, and curators who stick around for the whirlwind of ten-hour fair days, visits to remote private collections, and thumping social hours at neighborhood joints with names like “Why Not?” the fair is quickly supplanted by hazy memories. But ARCO, set thirty minutes out of centro, or downtown Madrid, takes a more measured pace than others, as if mandating a siesta within the normative frenzy. And why not?

This year’s ARCOmadrid was pushed back a week to accommodate Mexico City’s ascending powerhouse, Zona Maco. But ARCO’s new dates didn’t fix every conflict: I heard a few dealers complain that the richest Spanish collectors weren’t at ARCO because of the overlap with Spain’s school vacation period, which spanned the fair’s entire week. “Basel Miami Beach also changed everything,” Inés López-Quesada of Travesía Quatro reminded me. Her gallery, co-run with Silvia Ortiz, had just finished opening a new space in Guadalajara, Mexico. “Spanish collectors are not in a hurry; they don’t care if the work they wanted on the first day is no longer available.” Other galleries were banking on the Spaniards coming in over the weekend after their annual ski trips to Switzerland, but few showed up. “It’s something we’re still figuring out,” said ARCO director Carlos Urroz Arancibia.

Left: Collectors Leonora Belilty and Estrellita Brodsky. Right: Reina Sofia deputy director João Fernandes.


Instead, I saw figures from the Latin American market, like collectors Estrellita Brodsky, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, and Jorge Pérez. There were also dealers such as Elena Foster, Luciana Brito, and Tom Krinzinger; institutional bigwigs like Fundación/Colleción Jumex director Patrick Charpenel and Manifesta 10 curator Kasper König; and international artists like Dan Graham, Fernanda Fragateiro, and Christian Boltanski. All of them mingled until troves of high school students descended on the fair and began taking selfies and giggling at the art, which raised the question of who these art fairs are for—a knowing few or a disinherited many in the throngs of a recession? “Because Spain is in crisis, it’s a bit cooler,” said guest speaker Judith Benhamou-Huet at a talk on collecting.

ARCO to some degree answers the question of audience through its innovative curatorial focus, which persuades curators from all over the world—from Adriano Pedrosa to the Guggenheim’s Pablo León de la Barra, from Museo Tamayo’s Julieta González to University Museum’s Cuauhtémoc Medina, Pérez Art Museum Miami’s Tobias Ostrander, and São Paulo Bienal 2014 cocurator Pablo Lafuente—to attend, flying them over gratis and inviting them to hold meetings with whomever they’d like. “We have to pay more attention,” said SculptureCenter’s Ruba Katrib, the first face I recognized. Katrib was preparing to head the opening talk, titled “Material Culture and Contemporary Art,” and she was a paragon of calm. “I’ve always wanted to get this group of people together, and ARCO has made it happen,” she continued. “This fair is really about quality, slowing down and looking at even derivatives in a different way. How are we to understand derivatives in today’s art world?”

Left: Guggenheim MAP curator Pablo León de la Barra with dealers Beatriz López and Felipe Dmab. Right: Collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros.


Organized into two halls, the more than two hundred galleries tried out different strategies: Some took a nationalist tack, like Chantal Crousel, who showed the Spanish José Maria Sicilia—“an artist who could also be seen at any museum here,” she said. Or they went global. Los Angeles–based Honor Fraser showed the stoic work of Austrian Tillman Kaiser because “we believe in it; anyway, our clients are world travelers.”

The Opening section of the fair, cocurated by Manuel Segade and Luiza Teixeira de Freitas, included younger galleries, like New York–based Johannes Vogt, showing artists Sadie Benning and Johanna Unzueta. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s NoMíNIMO was at the fair for the first time, sharing a booth with Lima’s Revolver. “Guayaquil is where artists are producing innovative art in a range of media,” mentioned gallery director Pilar Estrada Lecaro. “In Quito, the government is the source for most of the funding.”

“Ecuador is a tale of two cities,” said Pablo León de la Barra as we passed Mexico City’s Proyecto Paralelo in the Focus Latinoamérica section of the fair. De la Barra had just come in from Bilbao (where he’d been visiting Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto’s latest exhibition, “The Body That Carries Me”) to give a few public talks with Latitude Brazil—a group that represents Brazilian galleries abroad. “My favorite work here is Fernanda Laguna at Nora Fisch,” he said. My favorite was Diego Bianchi’s wrenching performance installation over at Buenos Aires’ Barro Arte Contemporáneo, where a male performer’s clothes, limbs, teeth, and phallus were tethered by wire to assorted objects that hugged the walls of the closed-off booth, causing the assemblages to hover and produce audible creaks as he moved. “In a fair like this, you have to be contrary,” said Barro director Nahuel Ortiz Vidal. “Diego’s a contrario; the work doesn’t have to mean anything.” I took that to mean the opposite.

Left: Dealer Tom Krinzinger. Right: Curator Ruba Katrib and Geir Haraldseth.


On Friday night, Latitude held a cocktail party at the Dry Martini. Pinta London chairman Alejandro Zaia was there, as were Madrid-based curator Virginia Torrente, dealer Cecilia Jurado, and 80m2’s Livia Benavides. The ascot-wearing dealer Henrique Faria arrived after most guests were already sipping their second or third caipirinha. (“Be careful; they can creep up on you,” warned São Paulo artist Ricardo Alcaide.) Faria was exhibiting the work of two Spanish emigrants, Venezuelan Emilia Azcárate and Cuban Waldo Balart. “Hopefully I’m showing them in better states than their two countries are in right now.” He had already purchased for himself a series of erotic drawings by artist Carlos Motta that riffed on pre-Columbian art. When asked where he was going to put them, Faria quipped, “Right in front of my bed, of course.”

I followed the crowd out into the night and on to collectors Leonora and Jimmy Belilty’s capacious, art-filled apartment. Cohosted by Nogueras Blanchard, Maisterravalbuena, and Mor Charpentier, the gathering was flooded with usual suspects: Estrellita Brodsky and Leonora held court in the dining room while Alex Mor and Misol Foundation director Solita Mishaan exchanged drawn smiles in the living room. There was a life-size white patent horse replete with a matching medieval rider in the den, lance at the ready. And the joust was on as we headed afterward to Bar Cock, ARCO’s answer to Cheers—if Cheers were once a down-low bordello.

Left: Fundación/Colleción Jumex director Patrick Charpenel. Right: Dealer Elba Benítez (center) and artist Mario García Torres.


Quiet it wasn’t. Beatriz López of Instituto de Vision was complaining that Sofia Vergara stole her accent (though López’s singing voice was all her own). Magali Arriola, Fundación/Colleción Jumex curator and co-comisaria of the fair’s Latin American section, though herself hoarse, was able to explain to me what it’s like to work at the Jumex’s new digs while balancing her art schedule with a seven-year-old daughter. Her husband, artist Mario García Torres, had just opened a show of new animations at Madrid’s Elba Benítez Gallery. CAPC director María Inés Rodríguez joined a tête-à-tête with Juan Andrés Gaitán, while Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk, curator Abaseh Mirvali, collector Frances Reynolds, and dealer Peter Kilchmann circumambulated the wainscoted room. Above it all a painted rooster presided over the clucking.

The next morning I flew to the south of Spain. The NMAC Foundation, located in Càdiz, had invited a private group that included dealers Esther Schipper and Marc Blondeau, Tate trustee Nicole Junkermann, collectors Pilar Lladó and Jaime Gorozpe, and more to tour its natural surrounds. (It was once owned by the Spanish military, and army barracks still dot the landscape like camouflaged caterpillars.) Jimena Blázquez of the importing/exporting Blázquez family opened the foundation in 2001 to work with artists on site-specific projects. Marina Abramović was the first, carving niches along a quarry rock face, then came others, including Sol LeWitt, Olafur Eliasson, and James Turrell, lured no doubt by the Càdizian light and the cross-cultural vantage of the city’s proximity to Africa. On a clear day, you could see the plains of Tangier from the Blazquez house, a modernist white cube decorated with Spanish antiques. It sat perched on a manicured hill above the family’s stables—the largest in the world, with over 1,500 horses (some of which were so scared of Abramović that they had to be given sedatives during her stay).

Left: Dealer Nora Fisch. Right: Curator Juan Andrés Gaitán and Documenta 14 director Adam Szymczyk.


For lunch at the sun-filled house, we were served shrimp curry, naan, and a lomito wellington (an Argentinean take on the English classic) while Jimena and her father Antonio told stories about the NMAC artists in an easy mélange of English, French, and Spanish. Maurizio Cattelan had apparently asked the family to buy another refrigerator so he could stuff Antonio into it for one of his pieces; this idea would later evolve into Betsy, a 2002 portrait of grandmother Betsy Guinness of the Guinness fortune. After visiting poignant works by Cristina Lucas, Santiago Sierra, and Adrián Villar Rojas—the last of which was purchased jointly with Junkermann’s JJ Foundation—the tour culminated in a thirty-minute stop at the Turrell, the artist’s first Skyspace to fuse an Egyptian pyramid with a Buddhist stupa. “There was a convention of Skyspace owners last summer,” Jimena began to laugh. “We bonded over how difficult it is to build something like this.” This one had taken four years to complete. Once inside, despite the work’s consuming light, I could see the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt through the oculus. I felt I could have been anywhere—Cairo, Goa, Sevilla, Tokyo—and I suppose that’s the point of it: to transcend.

Frank Expósito

Left: Collector Antonio Blázquez. Right: Dealer Esther Schipper, NMAC Foundation director Jimena Blázquez, and dealer José Castañal.