MY IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE of the opening days for the sixth Glasgow International biennial began the morning after my arrival, when I had an appointment at a nail salon, part of Alistair Frost’s AZQ<>$@•^. I am usually pretty suspicious of feel-good art, especially when it’s participatory, but this was like a less demanding version of being pampered at the hairdresser, and I left with appliqued pinkies and thumbs. Was I shortchanged any subtexts of gender trouble, gentrification, artistic or social critique? I am not sure. Someone later told me I should have left a tip. Next time.
A morning of gallery viewing in the environs took in a small-but-great show of Chicago imagist Christina Ramberg at 42 Carlton Place and a group show at Modern Institute, where Tobias Madison, Emmanuel Rossetti, and Stefan Tcherepnin had divided the space in two using flesh-colored office carpeting. Madison talked about a month he’d spent going to experimental noise shows in Japan. Tcherepnin told me he had seen zombies in the street after a particularly late install night. It boded well for the artists’ own performance, with several more collaborators, as the band Solar Lice a few days later. “It’s interesting, but not worth ruining my ears for,” one friend said.
Still, it was a counterpoint to the kinds of work that curator Sarah McCrory had chosen for the “Director’s Programme,” the official focus of the Glasgow International. She described her choice to me as an “anti-theme” approach, which left lots of room for a range of work. At one extreme was Anthea Hamilton and Nicholas Byrne’s Love, set in a beautiful disused swimming pool filled with inflatables, including a bouncy cube version of Robert Indiana’s LOVE. I may have once jumped around on Jeremy Deller’s blow-up Stonehenge with my nephew, but I apologetically declined to take off my shoes to get into what Hamilton described as “the love box.” McCrory told the local newspaper that this exhibition might suit people who aren’t sure “if modern art is for them,” describing the inflatables as “lovely objects to look at, and fun.”
More nourishing fare, and no need to remove shoes, was at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). During the opening evening, Aleksandra Domanović pointed out the Snow White references in her large celluloid prints of images from sci-fi films, anchored in a 1938 rejection letter from Disney explaining that “women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen.” Upstairs, a gorgeous, lo-fi gallery of Sue Tompkins’s typed words and typographic symbols on sun-marked paper was complemented by an opening-night performance, to a packed room, of the Glaswegian artist’s sound-poems, which seemed half-remembered, half-improvised, and half-read. Urgent, playful, and by turns melancholic and beautiful, they were like Dada-ized E. E. Cummings lyrics, with more beatbox FX.
The McLellan Galleries made for the core venue of McCrory’s curated program. These long-disused spaces without running water (or heating) were also the setting of the opening-night speeches. There was foot stomping and throaty whooping, from what seemed like the entire Glasgow art scene plus friends, as Sarah McCrory started hers: “I’m going to do an HUO, I’ve got my notes on my phone, just so you know I’m not texting my mum,” she said, only then to be repeatedly interrupted by text messages from the audience, one suggesting (it later emerged) she “tell the one about the priest.”
Left: Hepworth Wakefield curator Andrew Bonancina, dealer Toby Webster, and curator Tobi Maier. Right: Artist Tobias Madison.
Guests then had some time to look at the works by four artists in this venue: Avery Singer’s large computer-generated paintings responding to modernist forms; Xerox copies of body parts and collage-diaries mixing classical statuary and homoerotic porn by the late Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr. (a recent discovery of McCrory’s, on a research trip to Brazil); and an ensemble by Charlotte Prodger, who had (inter alia) set Perspex disks next to the holes for electric sockets in the floor, creating an opportunity, at the opening, for accidental shuffleboard. The lower floor of this building was devoted to a miniretrospective of film and video by Jordan Wolfson, who in his work (no less than in person) disorients me with the consistency of his on-brand sound bites. In Glasgow he told me, “I am the happiest I have been in my life so far” and “every work is like digging up a corpse, like excavating it.” One early film in particular, 2004’s The Crisis, made me rethink the sincerity of Wolfson’s artistic ambition, which now, confusingly, seems incredibly sophisticated and incredibly naive at once.
Bedwyr Williams and Michael Smith shared the other main GI space, at Tramway, whose opening festivities were the day after. Williams built a dramatic installation with a dystopian film about a neo-feudalist future ruled by those with the most “stuff.” This space was just as busy as the bar area during the opening; and people leaving the installation of Smith’s films (four works on view in a cinema space, with a disco-ball backdrop and timeline) also left smiling, perhaps humming the catchy melody from Go for It, Mike. Smith’s work leaves no doubt that seriousness is a bad criterion for art. Insight needs humor. But what if our postapocalyptic future is mainly, also, or simply the setup to a funny story? Fair enough, I guess.
The news in Glasgow after the opening was about the city’s (since canceled) plan to demolish the Red Road Flats, a notorious housing estate, as part of the celebrations of the Commonwealth Games later this year. The failure of modernist aspiration turned into spectacle, for voyeuristic enjoyment on TV. There are also wrong ways to make the feel-good feel good. Heading out to one of many afterparties, however, I found myself more in tune with a line of Tompkins’s: “It’s Totally allright to feel upside down and listen.”
YOU KNOW IT’S SPRING in New York when the sea of black that describes the art world’s rigorous dress code changes to color. “Red and racy” was the mode d’access last Tuesday night for the New Museum’s annual benefit gala, which appeared to put the institution in the black. All the same, guests approaching Cipriani Wall Street were instantly outclassed by two gleaming red Ferraris sitting nose-to-nose on the sidewalk. (Ferrari was the evening’s corporate sponsor.)
Loiterers Instagrammed the cars like mad. All of them were men. “Figures,” said Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s associate director, joining the human red carpet going through the door. Inside the Greek Revival temple of lucre—the banquet hall was once the New York Stock Exchange—everyone admired everyone else’s way with red: Yvonne Force Villareal in bright red lipstick and red dress; Judy Hudson in a luminous red wig; Donald Baechler in the red jacket he’d picked up for $70 at a Banana Republic sale minutes before cocktail hour. “It’s so much fun just standing here and looking at the people,” Mary Heilmann said. “We don’t even have to go in.”
But we did go in, and all was glitter, glamour, and glory for the evening’s honorees, Annabelle Selldorf and Lynda Benglis. Toasting, or rather roasting, Selldorf, Robert Gober and Donald Moffett performed a deadpan comedy act accompanied by slides. Speaking of a Selldorf-designed cabin in Nova Scotia accessible only by boat, Moffett said, “Picture two middle-aged gay guys from New York wilderness camping.” Gober had the punch line. “It has all the conveniences of living on your own island,” he said, “and none of the prestige.” Not a dot of red on her, Selldorf confessed, “I felt so moved, but then I realized it was April Fools’ Day.”
Nobody’s fool was also in the room, namely Benglis. Gioni introduced her by bringing up the one thing that the seventy-two-year-old artist will never, ever live down: her naked, suck-my-you-know-what, double-dildo ad for herself in the November 1974 issue of Artforum. Weren’t those the days! “It was huge,” said Gioni. “Not the dildo—the ad.” Directing his remarks to his museum’s trustees, he added, “The lesson we all have to learn is that she did it, and we didn’t. And she did it before anyone else. She took painting off the wall and put it on the floor. If only she had been a guy. It would have been much less intimidating.”
At that, Benglis strode to the stage and proceeded to thank everyone—everyone at her table, that is—by promoting their friendship and services. In a dizzying, free-associated acceptance speech that rivaled Jodie Foster’s 2013 Golden Globes address for its baffling opacity, Benglis went on a verbal tour of her life that began in the quarry lands of New Jersey—via Greece—with stops in Santa Fe, Long Island, and back again to her friend from New Jersey, a budding Tony Soprano who loves art. “Visit the quarry,” Benglis commanded. “He’ll give you contracts. But don’t forget to bring your lawyers.”
“Lynda Benglis!” bellowed former Phillips auction house chief Simon de Pury. “I loved your acceptance speech! It was the best ever—ever!” (Applause.) Departing from his occasional duties as a DJ, de Pury urged bids from the likes of Aby Rosen, Alberto Mugrabi, and Charlotte Ford for the live auction of two commissioned portraits, each to be painted from life by two artists who never paint from life—Alex Katz and Takashi Murakami—the latter of whom doesn’t paint. Murakami pulled in the bigger bucks—$350,000—from David Heller, vice president of the New Museum board. And then, as if none of this had been amusing enough, the gala’s hosts—W magazine’s editorial chief Stefano Tonchi and actress Greta Gerwig—brought on the entertainment. She was Lykke Li, a young Swedish pop star with a Bergmanesque demeanor, who rocked out for a crowd learning her name for the first time.
The following night, star curators substituted for the merely rich at Capitale, where Van Abbemuseum director Charles Esche received this year’s Audrey Irmas Award from the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies. “This is like last night’s afterparty,” Selldorf chortled, approaching the reception table with collector Catherine Orentreich, a gala veteran. Maja Hoffmann also bore the afterglow of happiness, having met Pharrell Williams at the MoCA gala in Los Angeles a few days earlier. “He was so nice!” she said.
Everyone is so nice these days. Isn’t it grand? Lauren Cornell was so nice to Bard CCS director Tom Eccles that it made her nervous: Before presenting the Irmas award to Esche, a slip of the tongue caused her to describe Eccles as “sexsucksful,” underscoring Bard’s reputation as “the Wild West of the humanities,” as Eccles put it. Eccles then commanded the bully pulpit to call for women museum directors and curators to be paid equally to men.
Esche had to follow this. He began in a humble enough fashion, expressing surprise that anyone would come to a dinner honoring someone who has never worked in New York. After that he took off the gloves, lambasting his colleagues for creating their own fiefdoms instead of community, and not building on each other’s work. “What we do isn’t about art but its relationship to the world,” he said, venting his frustration over curatorial hegemonies that neglect the social function of art or cave to the popular.
Talk about never eating lunch in this town again. Heated conversation followed at tables around the room. “He’s being unnecessarily adversarial,” said Fionn Meade. “It’s not about art versus commerce, or us and them.” Another wag (an artist) dismissed the whole thing as “institutional narcissism.” It was left to Bard president Leon Botstein to right the ship. “Can art ever really change the way we live?” he asked. “Art is a space where we can reimagine society. But nothing we do is so important that if we stopped doing it, anything would be different.”
The following night it was back to the business of art. Adam Lindemann’s Venus Over Manhattan gallery showed the whole sweep of Raymond Pettibon’s “surfer” paintings, and Larry Gagosian opened pop-up shows for Urs Fischer in opposite ends of town. Adam Pendleton took up the art-as-social-revolution mantle in his bang-up show of silk-screened black mirrors at Pace, LA’s favorite son Roy Dowell animated Lennon Weinberg with collaged paintings and sculptures that brightened every eye in the place, and Nate Lowman parted the social seas at Maccarone with expert, new cutaway paintings in sweet, springtime pastels. Nice!
Before heading to Maccarone’s boisterous dinner for him at her Chinatown walkup, there was just enough time to check out the Fischer exhibition on Delancey Street, where bronze casts of the clay sculptures from his retrospective last year at LA MoCA were on show amid the counters and offices of a recently abandoned branch of Chase Bank. Dan Colen skateboarded to dinner; Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn took a chauffeured car. Artists Jack Pierson and Rob Pruitt broke bread together, Stella Schnabel paired off with Mirabelle Marden, Arden Wohl climbed into Hanna Liden’s lap, and the party went late.
The 1980s came a-calling on Friday, when the return of Colab’s seminal “Real Estate Show” brought a Lower East Side that no longer exists to James Fuentes. The decade showed its face once more on Saturday—along with the ’70s, ’90s, and ’00s—for a bracing sale at Metro Pictures and Paula Cooper to raise money for endowed scholarships and the new John Baldessari Studio at the California Institute of the Arts. (The sale, a first for the school, began in February at LA’s Regen Projects and will continue next month with an auction at Christie’s.)
Have any other art schools turned out as many Conceptual artists? Wrangled by Tony Oursler to make donations that former REDCAT director Clara Kim curated for the sale, many (including Allen Ruppersberg, Liz Glynn, and B. Wurtz) showed up for the opening reception, following New Barbarian from one gallery to the other as the four-person collective sang a chorale in silver robes and wigs.
Mostly, though, the evening was full of reminiscence. Oursler fondly recalled a 1976 visit from Philip Glass while John Cage was in residence. Josephine Meckseper remembered Michael Asher’s “weird laugh.” In the ’80s, said Adam McEwen, “I heard that someone had taught a class in joint-rolling,” and surely many moods have been altered under the fluorescent tubes of the storied institution’s classrooms. But teaching at CalArts changed not just Pat Steir’s mood but her life. While a guest of Bruce Nauman’s in the early ’70s, she said, she met Sol LeWitt—and the two lived together for the next ten years. “Funny how things have changed,” said Thomas Lawson, CalArt’s dean for the past twenty-three years. “Now we’re going to have a studio building named for the school’s first post-studio artist.”
But he was just being nice.
“THIS CITY IS A MONUMENT,” remarked Berta Sichel, artistic director for the first Cartagena Biennial, at a recent talk launching a weekend of performances, parties, and discussions organized as a kind of “second opening” for the show. She wasn’t speaking in tropes. Walking around the still walled-in Old City of Cartagena is like being inside a huge diorama. The place wears its colonial history like no other (unwilling) seat of the Caribbean slave trade, all whitewashed walls, carriages, and tchotchkes. The touristy environment provided a fertile and sometimes surreal backdrop to Sichel and her team’s curatorial ideas, and led to several surprise juxtapositions. For instance: an elegant sound piece by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh positioned in a well in the same courtyard as, and just adjacent to, objects and models of torture at the Museum of the Inquisition. Or the lugubrious room of an old church housing an installation by Anna Boghiguan, itself filled with dried-out beehives and bird carcasses. It smells like sugar and death.
Taking the thematic route to biennial curation, the show is divided into four primary ideas—craft, loss and trauma, ecology and culture, and colonialism—divided among four primary spaces. As serious as that sounds, it all plays out in a breezy, loose way. The exhibitions include a sizable percentage of trademark works from American and European names (Charles Atlas, Lothar Baumgarten, Julie Mehretu), probably obligatory in the context of a small city’s first-ever major international art showcase. An open call to Colombian artists helped shift the balance, resulting in the selection of a few dozen artists whose work was installed at Cartagena’s Museum of Modern Art and a ground floor space at Plazoleta Joe Arroyo.
Presented in a more traditional, roomier layout than that of the four primary spaces, the works represent an impressive swath of Colombia’s contemporary scene. And though the biennial doesn’t stretch beyond the walled city, a few pieces were placed in its least polished neighborhood, the Getsemani, where Satch Hoyt’s Say it Loud!, a small tower of books tricked out with a microphone and speakers, sits in the middle of a foot-traffic intersection. “Apparently it’s mainly used by one woman from the neighborhood, to complain about the biennial,” artist Eduardo Sarabia told me.
But aside from that modest protest, boosterism and excitement prevailed among the artists, professionals, and passersby with whom I spoke, and there was much speculation about what impact this event could have on visual culture in the city. At a party at the Tcherassi Hotel attended by a significant roster of local society, Bogotá-based curator José Roca argued that the biennial was gravely overdue: The city has long-standing international music and film festivals, but the contemporary art scene is nowhere to be found. But whether a biennial can be a force of cultural change in a place with scant galleries or alternative spaces, and no visible framework for artistic support, is hard to predict.
On the other hand, there was clearly an audience beyond the small group of invited guests and Colombian patrons. An outdoor solo dance, in which Bulgarian performance artist Svetlin Velchev wove himself through a box of tightly pulled strings, was packed with people, many of whom seemed surprised that anyone else had heard about it. At the Naval Museum of the Caribbean, one of the four main sites, I watched a group of plaid-skirted schoolgirls carefully scrutinize Nick Cave’s colorful, dancey soundsuit video Drive-By. And on one of the hottest days, our group joined weekending families to climb down into the moist, underground depths of the fortress at the pinnacle of the city wall, to watch Jesper Just’s Llano—a video about the California socialist colony that collapsed when it lost its water supply—inside the cavernous vessel that once held the city’s water reserves. On the last stop on that tour, at the intersection of the “fantasy city” (as our guide put it) and the real one, we came across Yoko Ono’s Wishing Tree for Cartagena. While the seasoned art travelers in the group rolled their eyes at the sight of another Wishing Tree, a fully uniformed and heavily armed security guard hung up his wish.
Left: SP-Arte director Fernanda Feitosa with artist Regina Silveira. (Photo: Rafael Neddermeyer/Getty Images) Right: Mary J. Blige at the amfAR gala. (Photo: David Velasco)
“WE’RE SPECIALISTS in special moments,” said Ana Maria Maia, a young São Paulo–based curator, of her home country last week at the Casa do Povo in the Bolivian-Korean-Jewish neighborhood of Bom Retiro. This could refer to such art-historical moments as when Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica, and their contemporaries produced the rupture that would become known as “Neo-concrete.” Or it could point to impending sporting events like the World Cup and Summer Olympics in Rio, both of which have catalyzed seismic domestic development and foreign attention. Or perhaps she meant the decentralized “moments” now occurring all around the nation, of individual groups—both artistic and otherwise—recognizing themselves as political entities and asserting their agency as such.
A factious and complicated work-in-progress, Brazil has come into its own over the past decade as a lodestar of the international contemporary art community. Last week its flagship art fair, SP-Arte, held its tenth edition, and though it’s SP-Arte that galvanized a week of openings and festivities all around town, it’s perhaps these dispersed, autonomous moments to which Maia referred that give the most meaningful impression of today’s São Paulo art world.
The aforementioned Casa do Povo is one of several alternative spaces to appear in São Paulo in recent years. Most of these are not in the tony gallery districts of Jardins or Vila Madalena, but are rather spread around downtown, an area still blighted by crime but architecturally blessed. Unlike industrial buildings that have been reclaimed for the arts, Casa do Povo was originally built as “a palace of culture” or “a people’s house,” though it had seen better days before recent efforts began to restore it to its glory. These terms are given by Benjamin Seroussi, an associate curator for the upcoming São Paulo Bienal and one of the key proponents of the initiative, who led a tour of the sprawling, open-concept facilities: a basketball court–size indoor performance studio encased in windows, a musty subterranean cinema which decades ago was one of the city’s most important venues for film, and a library that has again found proper care.
Nearby in Sé, São Paulo’s Times Square–like epicenter (trading lights for crumbling colonial grandeur), Maria Montero talked us through her evolving art complex on Rua Roberto Simonsen. She moved into the building in 2011 and set up two establishments with her collaborators: the nonprofit contemporary art center Phosphorus, currently featuring a show by Gustavo Ferro, and a clothing archive called Casa Juisi that sells vintage designs to visitors. On Saturday, Montero inaugurated Galeria Sé, a for-profit venture above Phosphorus she hopes will make the building’s overarching operations more sustainable, with an exhibition by photographer Dalton Paula. “I keep saying that I live under a fantastic past and hope for a better future,” said Montero of her space’s location. “For me this is a place of suspension; there’s lots of symbolic layers.”
But the primary anchor of the downtown scene is Pivô. What began two years ago as a squat in a long-abandoned dentist office occupying a generous share of the Niemeyer landmark Edificio Copan is now an established art center. Fernanda Brenner, one of Pivô’s founders, led a group through a preview of an exhibition by Lenora De Barros, a São Paulo artist who recently relocated to New York. Famous in Brazil for her text and image works, here she showed a collection of newspaper columns she published between 1993 and 1996 in the not-particularly-progressive but artistically adventurous Jornal da Tarde. The assemblages conflate Pop art and concrete poetry, edifying the general public about contemporary art and critiquing current events in a snappy, subversive mode. Walking us through the upper floor of Pivô, which Casa Triângulo had rented out for a twenty-fifth anniversary exhibition celebrating the gallery’s artists, Brenner revealed the center’s next steps toward cultivating a vibrant culture of pro-artist activities in São Paulo, noting plans to make the space into a research center for artists and curators.
As for SP-Arte, which takes over two levels of the gorgeous Niemeyer-designed Bienal pavilion, its claim as the most important art fair in the southern hemisphere can go pretty much unchallenged. Parsing the contents of an art fair curatorially, so to speak, is a fool’s errand, but compare SP-Arte’s roster of 136 galleries with its regional competitors and it comes out on top. Not only are Gagosian, Zwirner, and White Cube springing for stands, but other less franchise-happy international dealers were there too, including first-timers Marian Goodman, Kurimanzutto, and Michael Werner. And of course all the great local powerhouses participate—from Luisa Strina to Luciana Brito to Galeria Vermelho. Hauser & Wirth, however, dropped out this year, reportedly frustrated by Brazilian tax policy (more than 50 percent of the asking price, if sold to collectors outside São Paulo) according to Folha de São Paulo journalist Silas Martí in the Art Newspaper’s SP-Arte edition.
Amid the flurry of air kisses (one in São Paulo, two in Rio, three elsewhere) during Wednesday’s VIP preview day, I also met with two of the Bienal’s curators, Galit Eilat and Nuria Enguita Mayo, who explained the unique structure for their collaboration. There are five cocurators in total, the others being Charles Esche, Pablo Lafuente, and architect Oren Sagiv, and, like a team of superheroes or trained assassins, each is tackling the overall project through the lens of a self-proclaimed special talent. “Mine would primarily be publications,” said Mayo. For Eilat, “conflict zones”—not quite knife-throwing, but close.
SP-Arte wasn’t the only draw for international guests last week. Walking through Jardins one was frequently reminded that it was also #SPFW—São Paulo Fashion Week. The packed art schedule didn’t leave time for runway shows, but the celestial alignment of art people and fashion people produced a cosmic moment in the charity galaxy: an amfAR Inspiration Gala. On Friday, about a thousand people (and at least one monkey) in black tie flocked to the Jardins home of supermarket scion Dinho Diniz for an evening of outrageous proportions benefiting AIDS research. Several dealers were in attendance, including White Cube’s Jay Jopling and Alexandre Gabriel from Fortes Vilaça, each of whom had donated pieces to the live auction, but the paparazzi were concentrated on Brazilian celebs like TV personalities Regina Casé and Ana Maria Braga, up-and-coming actress Luisa Moraes, Amazonian songstress Gaby Amarantos, mixed martial artist Anderson Silva, and Big Brother cast member turned Kardashian-ian megastar Sabrina Sato.
Left: Black-tie guests at the amfAR gala. (Photo: Kevin McGarry) Right: Mallu Barretto and artist Vik Muniz at the amfAR gala.
The guest of honor was Janet Jackson, who was an apparent no-show and hence deemed she-who-must-not-be-named. Sharon Stone picked up the slack as a jaw-dropping auctioneer—“She’s better than Simon de Pury!” exclaimed my seatmate at the Iguatemi table—motoring through hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merch, pointing her gavel with wild abandon, silencing her famous copresenters, and creepily vamping on the subject of “underpants,” both Kate Moss’s—a peek at which she tacked on to a Moët & Chandon–packaged trip to the French Open—and her own: “As you all know…I don’t wear underpants…Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!”
After a performance by Mary J. Blige, the crowd migrated to the host’s Paris Hilton–esque private underground club and raged until well past six in the morning. Partying into the next day is the Paulistano’s modus operandi, and the most convivial dealers in town might be the indefatigable guys behind Mendes Wood, who closed out the week at the Jardins home of Pedro Mendes and Matthew Wood on Saturday. Following the gallery’s all-day opening of three solo shows (by Lucas Arruda, Adriano Costa, and Paloma Bosquê), those still in town rushed the gates, which guarded plentiful champagne, caipirinhas, and fruit—an entire banquet table heaped with bananas, cajus, jaboticabas, and other edible jewels. Just as it was time for me to make my way home for an early flight, the most famous artist in town, “Fancy Violence”—the menacingly feminine alter ego of Rodolpho Parigi—strode up the stairs, signaling that the party was just getting started. The same could be wagered for São Paulo as a whole.
Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto. Right: Dealers Pedro Mendes and Matthias von Stenglin. (Photos: David Velasco)
IT’S NOT EASY TO GET TO CUENCA, and if you were going a few weeks ago it may have been under the guise of the Bienal—one of the more extrasolar on the circuit. But it’s also likely that you went for the Andes, the Inca ruins, the hot springs, the shamans, etc. The participating artists, curators, collectors, dealers, visiting journalists, and others in town for the opening of the show’s twelfth edition didn’t distinguish so much between spending time with art or with nature. And many—whether incoming from New York, Sydney, Paris, Mexico City, or São Paulo—logged at least three flights to arrive at a tiny airport that was a $3 cab ride to their quaint, city-center hotel. “Bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and aspirin if the altitude gives you a headache!” we were told (in place of an agenda). Accordingly, perhaps, there were no banners advertising the show in the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, no VIP previews or extravagant dinners, and mostly the staff simply seemed pleased that the work arrived on time. Imagine if all the biennial countries had mascots, which passed a baton in some grand ceremony: an ominous Great White in Sydney handing it over to a mellow llama (or maybe a guinea pig, a delicacy!) in Cuenca. And that’s your visual for this local, low-key show.
Cuenca’s distance is also distancing. Curated by Manuela Moscoso and Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the show gathers works by forty-two artists, with 35 percent born in Ecuador, Peru, or Colombia. “We wanted to emphasize historic and economic connections,” the curators noted over breakfast on a sunny Friday morning. “We wanted to move away from polished discourses.” And if the spirit moved you, there was a series of “dialogues” offered on Saturday and Sunday, March 29 and 30—under headings such as “History, Body, and Aesthetic Condition,” “Appropriation,” and “Material Movement: Forests.” The shows themselves offered plenty to think about, particularly during your short walks (or long ones, if you wandered) amid the city’s eighteenth-century buildings and countless churches to the exhibition’s unusual venues—the Museo de Arte Moderno, the Colegio Benigno Malo (benign evil?), the Salón del Pueblo, and the Capilla del Museo de la Medicina, to name a few. You might, for example, contemplate the tame title of the show, “Ir Para Volver,” or Leaving to Return—a phrase that suggests “a physical and temporary absence (frequently without a definite duration)”—which is maybe just more contemporary art “nomadism” or an (admittedly oblique) reference to Julian Assange caged up in Ecuador’s London’s embassy. You might also ponder issues apposite to Ecuador, from the nation’s 2008 incorporation of the Rights of Nature in its constitution to its ongoing, disastrous oil drilling in the Amazon.
Left: Museo de Arte Moderno, Cuenca. Right: Artist Saskia Calderón.
“Well, it’s not every Friday morning that you find yourself looking at art in a middle school with a Che Guevara mural,” said a friend as we toured Benigno Malo alongside students playing basketball and heading to band practice. Were they part of the show? Sometimes. Marinella Senatore choreographed several teenagers for her The School of Narrative Dance—a series of performances in the school and on Cuenca’s streets. It was one of many works that belong to a category of biennial-prompted art. Sara VanDerBeek had shot photos of Chorrera artifacts in the Casa del Alabado museum in the nation’s capital, Quito, while on an “eye-opening” short residency. Jorge Satorre had encouraged Cuencan artisans to make expressive and nonutilitarian craft objects with their routine materials for his project, Lo Otro, also made on a residency. Felipe Mujica had worked in collaboration with the employees of a Cuenca sewing shop to produce his colorful fabric flag-curtain-painting-sculptures. Meriç Algün Ringborg had engaged a local library to produce The Library of Unborrowed Books – Section IV: Centro de Documentación Regional “Juan Bautista Vázquez,” an episode in her ongoing series.
One big plus for small biennials, such as Cuenca’s, is that bonds are formed fast and thick between visitors and participants. Have we ever laughed harder or longer over languid dinners? Or was it just the altitude getting to our heads? Even the show’s speech-driven award ceremony was slightly more tolerable. Quito-based artist-singer Saskia Calderón won first place that Friday night, with a prize of $30,000 for her work in the show, including Opera Onowaka—a score that invokes the names of spirits, which she learned while practicing rituals with the Huaorani people of the Amazons. It was also a win for Ecuador, as some headlines trumpeted the next day. Hope she stays put.
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT at 9:09 PM, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake shivered through Los Angeles. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, the crowd watched videos sway, stuffed animals tremble, and Kandors clink. A small opening for friends and supporters was inaugurating the final stop of the late Mike Kelley’s retrospective, the day before the museum’s slightly less intimate annual gala. Besides a few deep breaths and nudges, everyone loved the show, a homecoming for the lost artist at the almost-lost museum, nearly sunk by financial profligacy. Art historian and Kelley catalogue contributor George Baker posted to Facebook afterward: “Mike Kelley and earthquake. I thought of jumping underneath the Educational Complex.”
Though an aftershock roiled us the following afternoon, none of the starlets perched precariously on high heels tumbled on the red carpet on their way into the MoCA gala. On the other side of a thicket of photographers stood artists Lari Pittman and Roy Dowell, drinking champagne. “We’ve not really been here in years,” said Dowell. Pittman asked who the next chief curator would be, hoping in the same breath for Helen Molesworth; collector John Morace suggested Peter Eleey or Juan Gaitán. Somebody told a story of introducing Orlando Bloom to MoCA’s weeks-old new director Philippe Vergne. “I feel like we’ve met before. What’s your last name?” asked Vergne.
“No…I guess we haven’t met before.”
Welcome to Los Angeles.
A cluster of artists peered with amusement at clusters of celebrities; gazelle-like fashion icons grazed on toad-in-the-holes amid snowdrifts of white hair and tuxedos. Dita von Teese, in something lavender, slithered past a zebra-striped Joy Venturini Bianchi; they made the heiresses feel plain in their funereal gowns. “Isn’t that a celebrity?” asked artist Nicole Miller. No one remembers his name, though somebody offers “Chris Sea-something,” which was enough to jog Miller’s memory: Ryan Seacrest.
An official-sounding voice called us in for dinner. One can never really be astonished enough at the LA legerdemain of a parking lot transformed into a banquet hall. Waiters whirled though with palettes of vegetables: a purple carrot sliced long-ways in the vicinity of a chop of butter lettuce, all composed just so by a minion of Wolfgang Puck. David LaChapelle talked federal drug policy while his date Daphne Guinness took notes in a ghostly script with her fountain pen. The chatter mostly hushed as new board cochair Lilly Tartikoff Karatz rose to the stage. “Eli, we love you forever,” she announced at some point in her speech, which made a few people in the crowd flinch and look around nervously for the billionaire. The other cochair followed, Guess founder Maurice Marciano, his voice billowing with joy through the tent as if he were telling you the best joke you’ve never heard in your life. He emitted a Zorba-like energy; if it weren’t for the tux, you’d imagine him as a carefree beach-drifter. He was already likable, but the crowd liked him even more when he dropped another $1.2 million onto the museum. Vergne leapt on the stage: “Maurice, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.”
Left: Katy Perry. (Photo: Billy Farrell/BFAnyc.com) Right: Artists Nancy Rubins and Chris Burden. (Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com)
After all the speechifying, the white curtain crept back and there she was, radiant black hair and shimmering in red, Diana Ross. The legendary songstress medleyed through some of her greatest hits, from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” to “Baby Love” with a trio of back-up singers and piped-in music. Tables emptied to the makeshift dance floor as Miss Ross’s voice reached its beautiful high pitch during a cover of “I Will Survive.”
After her final bow, I went outside to join the smokers. MoCA curator Bennett Simpson snapped a shot of Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber with John Welchman and Anita Pace. Pace began to talk about her performance the following day at the museum. “It’s a piece we, Mike and me, did together…” she paused. “I keep saying we and he’s gone.” A few steps away I ran into artists John Seal and Samara Golden; it’s their first gala. The crowd around was breaking up, some to an afterparty at Eugenio Lopez’s, others to parts unknown. “I was so moved by Diana,” said Golden looking up from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. “I just stood by the stage and I cried.”