AT THE END OF MAO II (1991), Don DeLillo’s prescient yet strangely underappreciated novel of art, terrorism, and mass hysteria, a New York photographer named Brita turns up in Beirut’s southern suburbs to photograph a shadowy militia leader called Abu Rashid. It’s the later stages of the civil war, and Brita is on assignment, winding her way through destroyed buildings and a stubbornly vibrant street life. “Her driver is a man about sixty who pronounces the second b in bomb,” writes DeLillo. “He has used the word about eleven times and she waits for it now, softly repeating it after him. The bomb. The bombing. People in Lebanon must talk about nothing but Lebanon and in Beirut it is clearly all Beirut.”
This passage pushed into the forefront of my brain two weeks ago and has stayed there ever since. The bomb. The bombing. As it happened, on November 12, I was late for the opening of Home Works 7, the most recent iteration of an event featuring talks, lectures, performances, debates, exhibitions, film programs, and more, which the pioneering arts organization Ashkal Alwan has been holding every few years since 2002. It was a Thursday evening, and the two main exhibitions—one an earthy study of bodies and materials called “On Water, Rosemary, and Mercury,” curated by Ashkal Alwan’s founding director, Christine Tohme; the other, media-savvy and cerebral, titled “What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation)” and assembled by Alexandria-based curator Bassam El Baroni—weren’t quite ready. A performance by Brian William Rogers and Yasmine Dubois Ziai, which would never overcome its technical difficulties, was delayed by an hour. The energy in the old furniture factory that Ashkal Alwan calls home was more agitated than festive.
Why? Two explosions had just ripped through the mixed, densely populated district of Burj al-Barajneh, in the southern suburbs, right as commuters were coming home from work and families were gathering for dinner. As Tohme was welcoming the crowd and setting the news in context (two suicide bombings, a third thwarted, and a fourth escaped, all claimed by the Islamic State as a move against working-class Shiites and a message to Hezbollah regarding its support for Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war), her colleague Garine Aivazian told me twenty people had been killed. By the time I climbed up to the roof to see Marwan Rechmaoui’s Blazon—a magisterial new mapping of Beirut and “the war to come” through a vast collection of flags representing neighborhood affinities and divisions therein—and returned to the ground floor to check on the performance, dealer Saleh Barakat told me the number had risen to thirty. It reached above forty as I called it a night, the second b in bombing sounding louder and louder in my mind.
And the sad thing is—Home Works is always like this. There is always a disaster just passed, happening now, or about to occur. For previous editions, it was the outbreak of the second intifada; the invasion of Iraq; the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri; the 2006 war with Israel; and fighting in the streets between Hezbollah and rival forces, including Hariri’s political movement, Tayyar al-Mustaqbal. For that reason, and because the disturbances that characterize everyday life in Beirut have become so routine, Home Works tends to happen when it can and, among artists and other such intellectuals, when it needs to, or when the various conflicts in the area known euphemistically as “the situation” have become complicated enough to demand some articulation through questions, a gathering of friends, and a good two weeks of discussions anchored to works of art and discursive propositions that are often, and by necessity, more speculative than polished.
Of course this time around it wasn’t only Lebanon but the whole world that had turned upside down. The night after the explosions in Burj al-Barajneh, there were the Paris attacks, and then, a few days later, the hotel siege in Mali. Brussels was on lockdown. Russia announced (note, did not threaten but merely stated) that it was closing Lebanon’s airspace for military drills. By the time of the party marking the end of the event last Tuesday, Turkey had shot down a Russian jet over Syria (and then, as if it were some terrible video game, local rebels shot and killed the pilot as he was parachuting down to the ground). At that point a friend who had worked on at least five of the fifteen films screened for Home Works 7 asked me earnestly: “Are we basically celebrating one last time before the start of World War III?”
Left: Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk. Right: Artists Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Setareh Shahbazi.
Amazingly, for all that, there were only two cancellations in the entire program. The local public was robust, and young, which may be because Ashkal Alwan has also become in the past five years an experimental art school, which in turn drew students from all across town. Among the visitors, there were few mercenaries in evidence. No one seemed to be shopping for a future show, or paying fealty to a patron (that was the month before). It was mostly a collection of familiar and/or fearless friends. In the latter camp were key members of Team Documenta 14: artistic director Adam Szymczyk and curators Paul B. Preciado and Pierre Bal-Blanc. Among the former, the curators Catherine David, Maria Lind, and Corinne Diserens; Achim Borchardt-Hume from Tate Modern; Giovanni Carmine from Kunsthalle St. Gallen; Tamara Corm from Pace; Aleya Hamza from Gypsum in Cairo; Antonia Carver from Art Dubai; and Farida Sultan from the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait.
The artist Hassan Khan was in town from Cairo. Francis Alÿs, showing The Silence of Ani, was visiting from Mexico City. The writer Stephen Wright flew in from a shell-shocked Paris. Mai Abu ElDahab, of Mophradat (Arabic for vocabulary, and the new name of the organization formerly known as the Young Arab Theater Fund) came for a few days from Brussels, as did the curators Samar Kedhy and Khadija El Bennaoui, from a museum in Marseilles and an art center in Ghent, respectively. The curator Koyo Kouoh was in Beirut because the organization she founded four years ago in Dakar, Raw Material Company, was getting ready to launch an event not unlike Home Works. “The art scene in Senegal isn’t as vibrant as it is here,” she told me thoughtfully, “but we have a long history of criticality,” a rare thing anywhere. How did it happen? “We had a poet as president”—Léopold Sédar Senghor, the founder of Négritude—“for over twenty years.”
After the first edition of Home Works, in 2002, Tohme wrote a kind of open letter about the intellectual figures whom the forum had called forth. “For long decades, we only translated into Arabic the books produced by the West that we deemed convenient,” it went. Only recently had they begun “to place the seriousness of ideas and preoccupations as the criteria for calling upon a certain intellectual, from the far ends of the earth, to come and present her/his work and ideas to us. It is to those few that we owe what we’ve accomplished today.” Home Works 7 felt like a reunion of them all. And as one artist, writer, filmmaker, and thinker after another grappled with what the hell had been happening to them in the past few years—in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon; in the face of money, markets, modernity, and capitalism run amok; in the name of feminism, labor, activism, and the sorry fate of the region’s archaeological heritage—Home Works 7 also felt like it was for us, whoever “us” may be.
On Friday, November 13, the artist and filmmaker Ahmad Ghossein delivered a terrific lecture-performance on illusion, delusion, and the loss of wonder, all told through the stories of a magician, a sculptor, and an architect. On Saturday, four activists who had been involved in a summer protest movement in Beirut debated one another with enough cogency to give hope for the future. At the back of the room, Szymczyk weighed the merits of making some kind of Beirut-centric statement of solidarity on Documenta’s blog. I couldn’t quite follow his logic (and at that point, I was naive enough to think that politicians in Europe and America wouldn’t conflate the wack jobs of ISIS with desperate Syrian refugees), so he put it in the simplest terms: “Wherever there is life, we should go there. But wherever there is death, we should just push it away.”
From there, I wandered into a lecture by the artist Matthew Poole, just as he was saying: “What does any of this have to do with art? I mean, what the hell are we doing here when bombs are going off and people are being killed and we’re involved in this luxurious, bourgeois act?” He paused; he continued. “Art that’s not art is bourgeois, is ideologically violent. But when art is art…” And indeed, that was the thought to complete for those two weeks.
On Sunday, November 15, the artist Ali Cherri paired up with archaeologist Sam Hardy for a powerful discussion of ruins, museums, the destruction of Palmyra, and the roaring trade in stolen antiquities. Later that afternoon, outside the theater Dawar al-Shams, I ran into Frie Leysen, the Brussels-based curator of the performance program for Home Works 7. She’s an old hand in Beirut, having organized the fifth edition of the festival Meeting Points, back in 2007. “It’s much quieter this time,” she said. “Meeting Points was nine cities. This is only one. But it’s good. The performances are full.” What’s happening in the world is a mess, she added. “The night of the attack we were fully booked but the theater was only half full.” Leysen furrowed her brow. “When something like that that happens, what do you do? You don’t go out.”
But throughout their history, Beirutis do go out, especially when times are this tough. The city generates a particular intensity, which often drives people crazy with the sense of life being lived in an extremely full but terribly fragile way, jostled all the time by corruption, dysfunction, and the barest of contradictions. It is also a tiny city with an enormous ego, and the contemporary art scene is the same. It exerts an influence in the region and the world that is totally disproportionate to its size.
Still, it’s always hard to know how to judge the forum. With the palpable exception of Tarek Abou El-Fetouh’s contribution in 2013, the exhibitions are never very good, or coherent, as exhibitions. This time was no different, though there were flashes of brilliance in projects taken one by one (Rechmaoui on the roof; Abbas Akhavan and Saba Innab in the Beirut Art Center). There were no famous names or scandals on the level of a keynote lecture by Jacques Rancière (still hot in 2005) or a Foucault-quoting member of parliament associated with Hezbollah (still sexy in 2010). For the most part, Ashkal Alwan organized a challenging program of knotty ideas and unknown names. The strongest moments tended to be spoken—in Ghossein’s performance; in a lecture by Tony Chakar (a work-in-progress still searching for a conclusion) proposing the richness and diversity of religious iconography and mystical texts as the start of an adequate response to a phenomenon like ISIS; in another lecture by the writer and activist Nahla Chahal on returning the notion of dignity to political discourse; and in another lecture still, by the Istanbul-based writer Suna Kafadar, who linked poetry to politics in a beautiful text about forms being drained of their meanings, a recurring theme.
Left: Dealer Aleya Hamza with Ashkal Alwan's Mohammed Abdallah. Right: Curator Frie Leysen.
The wildest moments, meanwhile, tended to be danced—most notably in the last performance, Marlene Monteiro Freitas’s Of Ivory and Flesh (Statues Also Suffer), which was arguably the weirdest and most intense piece of choreography for live bodies that I have ever seen onstage. Consider, first, that Monteiro Freitas is a virtuoso in at least six ways (I recognized her immediately from a Boris Charmatz performance for Home Works two years ago), and then imagine a collision of all this: a stage set like a boxing ring; the authoritarian atmosphere of Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams (1981); a bombastic Omar Souleyman track (“Warni Warni”) on repeat; a male dancer drenched in sweat, drool, and smeared makeup, plowing into the audience, looking for a little tenderness; and everything inspired by Alain Resnais’s film with Chris Marker, Statues Also Die (1953), which was banned for decades in France. Two nights in a row, the crowd went nuts, and I mean up on their feet, arms in the air, screaming their admiration nuts. Then the four principal dancers, including Monteiro Freitas, showed up for the closing party and kept it going until the early morning hours.
A few days later, I met the novelist Elias Khoury for breakfast. He had been expansive and charismatic on a panel I had moderated for Home Works 7, and I was curious to hear more about the rifts he had mentioned, which had cracked through the art scene decades earlier, when Khoury was running an experimental theater, Masrah Beirut, and codirecting an event known as the Ayloul Festival, a precursor to Ashkal Alwan. The story he tells is one of sadness and loss, but also frustration over what he sees as political neutrality and complicity with the ruling class. I looked out at the sea, which was absurdly blue and still for the start of winter. Years ago, the journalist Samir Kassir, who was killed by another bomb, another bombing, wrote that Beirut’s “playfulness and love of show and spectacle” never failed “to conceal its inner seriousness.” I remembered a talk by the Syrian architect Khaled Malas, which raised a number of tricky questions about how the language of art can function as political action in a war zone. “Sadly I am romantic enough to believe in art still,” Malas said. Aren’t we all, to our endless hope and peril.
“THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA’S relationship with the Aboriginals is a history of wrong decisions,” Vernon Ah Kee told the crowd at Brisbane’s Griffith University Art Gallery last Thursday. “There were opportunities to go another way, but the government at the time repeatedly chose brutality.” The artist compared the experience of being indigenous in today’s Australia to having thousands of little cuts all over your body, painful but not lethal. Ah Kee stood in the crossfire of two sets of his canvases, one showing the bound figures of the oppressed, the other the snarling faces of their oppressors. The space between was mediated by one of Ah Kee’s text works, restaging a quote from James Baldwin: “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
“I paint less politically loaded things too,” Ah Kee added, cracking a small smile. “When you get down to it, I make work about my family and my family’s history and the historical events that contributed to it. But as an indigenous man, for me to paint my family members is already understood as a political act.” Ah Kee’s work was part of “Brutal Truths,” an exhibition that also included a seminal installation by Gordon Bennett, who passed away last year. The son of one of the “Stolen Generation”—in perhaps the ghastliest of the Australian government’s “wrong decisions,” up through the 1960s indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and raised “white”—the artist railed against institutionalized racism, through provocations from his “white” persona of “John Citizen” or Bennett’s gut-wrenching sketches, some of which were on display at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, for a show acerbically called “Be Polite.”
When compared with the conversation—or lack thereof—around American First Nations (oh, yeah, Happy Thanksgiving, United States!), the art of the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures would seem to enjoy a privileged visibility, and not only within Asia Pacific. “In Australia, it’s the Aboriginal art everyone’s after. That’s what gets shown in Documenta and Istanbul,” artist (and, with Ah Kee, fellow proppaNOW member) Richard Bell told me. In his ten-minute film Broken English, 2009, Bell canvasses the streets of downtown Brisbane, sticking his mic in the pink faces of the city’s unsuspecting public to ask them about the contributions of their indigenous neighbors. “Well, you know… culture?” a brunette offers hesitantly. Her blonde friend checks Bell’s reaction before nodding along. When asked whether land should be returned to its original owners, a third woman replies, “Yes, of course!” before qualifying: “To some of them.”
As selective reconciliation is not an option, Queensland’s cultural institutions have their work cut out for them. Their key tool is the Asia Pacific Triennial, the crowning gem of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, otherwise known as QAGOMA. (“I keep thinking they’re saying ‘Glaucoma,’ ” Met curator Maia Nuku confessed. I heard “Gorgona.”) “When the APT first started, you didn’t have other institutions in the region showing this kind of work,” TarraWarra Museum of Art director Victoria Lynn recalled. “This is what set the APT apart.”
To maintain this primacy, QAGOMA employs multiple strategies, from establishing art-historical trajectories for Aboriginal and Torres Strait visual practices (see the current survey “Everywhen, Everywhere”) to the programmatic integration of indigenous artists into the collection. Now in its eighth iteration, the APT provides a public platform for these efforts, while also giving the museum a chance to expand its holdings. The majority of works on display this year (I was told 70 percent) were accompanied by acquisition notices, a healthy sign for a hungry institution, even though, as one of the museum’s curators confided, “Sometimes it’s just cheaper to buy the work than to try to send it back.”
“I guess museum biennials don’t have to stress so much about a theme,” observed Jochen Volz, one of the curators of the upcoming São Paolo Bienal. Even if APT8 did not have a unifying title or curator (the museum’s entire staff contributes), there was certainly an agenda. In addition to a craft- and performance-heavy central exhibition, side projects indulged the APT’s penchant for the underdog. Several large galleries in QAG were dedicated to narrative scroll paintings from South Asia, while the head of QAGOMA’s Australian Cinémathèque, curator José de Silva, contributed two film programs, “Pop Islam” and “Filipino Indie.” The latter, it turns out, is just as unlikely as the former. As the program’s cocurator Yason Bernal pointed out, in the Phillipines, “We have the world’s slowest Wi-Fi.” Bernal links this with a reinforced “notion of the real,” untainted by Internet streams, but perhaps it also explains the marathon-caliber attention span needed for Lav Diaz’s sumptuous films. (From What Is Before , screened Saturday night as part of APT8 Live, totaled 338 minutes, while other works in the program—Death in the Land of Encantos  and Evolution of a Filipino Family —racked up 540 and 654 minutes, respectively.) Endurance wasn’t just limited to the cinemas; that Saturday, Melati Suryodarmo spent twelve straight hours smashing charcoal briquettes with a rolling pin in a re-creation of her performance from 2012 I’m a Ghost in My Own House.
Like the coal dust, there was something about the triennial’s indiscriminately celebratory tone that stuck in one’s throat. One of the uncontested showstoppers was Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub, 2010–, a Pacific-accented reimagining of the colonialist gentleman’s club. Inside the extravagantly outfitted lounge (the stuff of Gauguin’s teenage dreams), performers sang or danced or just got naked, reveling in the kind of unfettered sexuality and strength emblemized by Raymond’s opening-night attire: a colonial frock with a critical swath of fabric missing down the back, so as to give the crowd a full view of her bare body underneath.
Cross-dressing—in terms of gender, culture, power, or even species—coursed through the triennial, starting with the opening-day performance of Justin Shoulder and Bhenji Ra’s Ex Nilalang: Incarnations, which animated figures from Filipino folklore. Ra swooned into a handheld mirror as the mermaid “Super Sireyna,” while Shoulder shuffled around the museum foyer, festooned as a crepe-papered creature that looked like the product of a three-way among an old school boombox, a velociraptor, and a slutty piñata. Upstairs, Ming Wong’s videos and photographs followed four individuals within Yogyakarta’s transgender community who had found empowerment in the slippages of their self-presentation, while Hetain Patel indulged in his own strain of power drag, donning a Spiderman suit for his two-channel video The Leap. One channel shows the costumed artist executing a powerful jump across his living room; the other flips the angle to show his family members, looking on in dismay. Haider Ali Jan literally turns the subjects of his photographs into cartoons, superimposing loosely rendered caricatures over his Lahore street scenes, while Anida Yoeu Ali channels Lewis Carroll with her ongoing “Buddhist Bug” series, which sees the artist trolling the urban environments of Cambodia dressed as a giant orange caterpillar.
It almost felt like the exhibition itself was in drag, confusing content, voguing, and voguing-as-content (or content-as-voguing?). The day before the opening, APT8 artists and organizers gathered for a traditional blessing and a barbecue on the lawn, which all felt quite genuine. The next night, however, laid on the spectacle, as a staggering fourteen thousand visitors flocked to the museum, driving the total first weekend attendance to thirty-two thousand. Dignitaries like QAGOMA director Chris Saines, Queensland’s premier and state minister of the arts, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Australia’s minister of the arts Mitch Fifield all dutifully commenced speeches with warm words of gratitude and acknowledgment to the elders whose lands the museum now occupies.
Left: Curators Daina Warren, Julie Nagam, and Michelle LaVallee. Right: Pataka director Reuben Friend and Creative New Zealand’s Ana Sciascia.
Fifield claimed that credit should also go to the taxpayers, but he neglected to mention the Australia Council for the Arts, the formal body that sees that those tax dollars actually make it to the artists. Palaszczuk was quick to correct Fifield’s omission, but it had not gone unnoticed. Earlier this spring, in an attempt to fund a new “innovation-oriented” funding initiative, Fifield’s predecessor had yanked nearly $75 million from the council, with $23 million in cuts for 2015–16. With the shift in administration, installing Fifield as the incoming minister of the arts, $5.75 million was returned the day before APT8’s grand opening. While widely welcomed as a conciliatory gesture, it came after the council had already undergone restructuring, shedding beloved programs and staff. “It’s been a bittersweet week,” a staffer admitted.
As part of its support for APT8, the council oversaw the second year of its International Visitors Program (IVP), which sidesteps the logistical obstacles of exporting works by directly importing curators like Volz, Nuku, Hendrik Folkerts, Diana Campbell Betancourt, and Venus Lau. This year, the council also launched the First Nations Curators Exchange, which convened delegates from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia for a weeklong program of strategy sessions and collective brainstorming. The program marked the first such collaboration between the council and its Kiwi counterpart, Creative New Zealand. As Auckland Art Gallery’s Nigel Borrell explained over a Malaysian feast Saturday night, “Even in New Zealand, we’re not very up to date with what’s going on in Australia. Except for Megan,” he grinned, motioning to his colleague, Megan Tamati-Quennell. “She’s a Māori specialist, so she gets invited everywhere.”
Left: Curators Guillaume Soulard, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, and José De Silva. Right: QAGOMA curator Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow with SaVAge K’lub’s Maryann Talia Pau.
The director of the Tarnanthi Festival, Nici Cumpston, shared how the Art Gallery of South Australia had allowed direct interventions into their colonial art hanging, while Tamati-Quennell spoke compellingly about the need to also recognize outside artists working contemporaneously with Māori traditions, and not simply focus on the Māori’s take on European modernism. If the goal were to trade notes, consider that mission accomplished. However, both the First Nation delegates and the IVP curators were confounded by the divide between the two initiatives. “The program’s heart is in the right place, but it still feels a little like ghettoization,” one delegate sighed. “The exchange is just in its first year,” Australia Council’s Tara Kita assured us. “This is the pilot of a program we’re going to be expanding in the future.” That is, if there aren’t more surprise budget cuts?
That evening, all scenes converged at the IMA for the institution’s fortieth anniversary party. Too noodled to partake, I slipped beside IVP curators Brian Clark and Abdellah Karroum as they waited for margheritas at the portable pizza oven parked out front. Inside, IMA directors Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns held court with curator Vivian Ziherl near some sort of alcoholic slushie dispenser set up at the front desk. “Purple’s the best,” a new friend advised. “They’re out of purple,” her companion pouted. She screwed up her face, “Red then?”
What can I say? Some traditions just don’t translate.
WITH BLOCKBUSTER BIENNIALS increasingly wedded to the galleries underwriting them, the term “biennial art”—the European second cousin of “commercial” art—no longer holds the same currency. When it comes to events off the beaten track, however, exhibitions often build credibility through following “biennial art’s” favorite strategy: Find a fresh wound from recent history, and wiggle one’s finger around in it, preferably via video installations that “challenge dominant modes of perception” and “invert expectations.”
Ariani Darmawan’s 2008 short film Sugiharti Halim manages to do both while wickedly satirizing the genre as a whole. The work revisits a moment in 1965, when the anti-Communist push of the Suharto regime saw the country’s ethnic Chinese population coerced into taking Indonesian-sounding names. Darmawan’s eponymous protagonist has been saddled with the phonetically challenged word for “wealthy” as her first name. Bemoaning her situation, she addresses not the biennial audience—unseen, but presumed interested until proven jaded—but rather a series of dispassionate first dates, who are shown toying with their noodles or staring at their straws as Halim enacts the popular tropes of the genre, at one point even producing an archival photo of her father and holding it out for inspection. Her monologue is finally interrupted by her last suitor, who questions the use of getting angry about the past. It is Halim’s turn to stare at her noodles.
Darmawan’s film was screened as part of this year’s Jakarta Biennale, which opened Saturday, November 14, in a warehouse not far from the city’s Tebet district. As Indonesia publicly grapples with the fiftieth anniversary of one of the century’s most brutal massacres, the exhibition reaffirms its commitment to the present with the title Mayu Kena, Mundur Kena (“Neither Forward nor Back”). The curator Charles Esche recruited six of his colleagues from across Indonesia—Riksa Afiaty, Irma Chantily, Putra Hidayatullah, Anwar “Jimpe” Rachman, Asep Topan, and Benny Wicaksono—to help flesh out three intertwined motifs: city and history, social behavior, and water (a particularly loaded topic in Indonesia, where water purification is the scythe to gentrification’s Grim Reaper). The team made site visits to outposts around the country, recording their findings for the biennial catalogue. While Esche insisted on denying any hierarchies among the curators, Rachman cheekily suggested otherwise, writing: “Maybe we are the shady trees that have yet to bear fruit while Charles is a lush green tree with dangling, ripe produce.”
Left: Artist Richard Bell. Right: Artists Bron Zelani and Dwi “Ube” Wicaksono Suryasumirat.
Speaking of produce, the Jakarta Biennale signaled another important shift by trading its parking-lot venue (traffic being the bane of the city’s existence) for Gudang Sarinah, a warehouse of the Sarinah Department Store, which stocks handcrafted souvenirs and textiles made by women across the country. “We created our own little economy here too,” recounted artist Zeyno Pekünlü, who had already clocked three weeks on site. “You could see the fruit carts slowly start to catch on that we were here. Now they’re all parked at the entrance.” Pekünlü had come early to train in beksi, an art of self-defense. “When I first got this invitation, I thought about what I wanted to learn from Indonesia. In Turkey, judges look the other way for men who commit honor killings, but then throw down harsh sentences to Turkish women who attempt to defend themselves.” The artist edited footage of her training sessions to create Pretty Furious Women, a trailer for a fictional B-movie, advertised by movie posters plastered around the exhibition space. “Did you paint these or were they commissioned?” I asked. “Commissioned, of course!” Pekünlü laughed. “Look at my nose in that one!”
Overall, the biennial bristles with acts of resistance, from a recreation of Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Embassy and Bik Van der Pol’s ode to the Surabaya riverside communities who refuse to be forced from their homes to the archival photos dissolving in the whirlpool of Oscar Muñoz’s mesmerizing Ciclope, 2014, to Tita Salina’s sea-beast, an island made entirely of floating waste. Yee I-Lann mined the social repercussions of the Malaysian folk figure of the kuntilanak, the witchlike, “failed”—ie, childless—woman, while the Myanmar-based artist Kolatt offered a lithe little plea for tolerance with Apple, 2015, a six-minute film demonstrating a variety of ways to eat an apple, all with the same result. “At first glance, I thought this exhibition was really tough, but now I’m beginning to see how it is actually quite tender,” theorist Nikos Papastergiadis said admiringly.
Left: Artists Dan Perjovschi and Farid Rakun. Right: CCA Singapore's Vera May, artist Yee I-Lann, and Anca Rujoiu
As is now de rigeur, the biennial was ushered in by parallel programs, including a conference investigating Indonesia’s water and sanitation issues; “Skartefak,” organized by the newly established Jakarta Ska Foundation; and “Keep the Field,” a collaboration between a group of Polish artists (led by Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska) and the Jatiwangi Art Factory, an initiative based in a West Javanese village once known for its ceramics but now struggling to establish new industries. At the biennial opening on Saturday afternoon, artist Marta Frank used the town’s famous clay to make decorative soap, which she fashioned into formidable bricks. “This way people are forced into sharing,” she beamed. While I was marveling at the heft, artist Arie Syarifuddin pressed a thimble-sized Ziploc bag in my hand. Inside was a mottled brown lozenge that looked sure to interrupt one’s grip on reality. Riding a conspiratorial surge of adrenaline, I goaded him for more instructions. “You just eat it,” he laughed. “It’s a cookie made from the clay in Jatiwangi. It’s edible.” Okay, but not, like, edible…?
As the evening picked up, White Shoes & The Couples Company serenaded a spirited crowd six thousand strong. Amid the artists and Indonesia hipsters, I could pick out international curators Eungie Joo, Ekaterina Degot, Ute Meta Bauer, Ruth Noack, Susanne Pfeffer, and Mami Kataoka, alongside local legend, collector Melani Setiawan, one of the scene’s most dedicated patrons. (Setiawan is in the process of publishing her forty-year archive, including some 700,000 photos of Indonesian artists at every stage of their careers.) Someone covertly offered me a warm beer, which, for a moment I mistook for some kind of local specialty, before it was explained that it had just overheated while being smuggled in. (Indonesia has recently cracked down on the sale of alcohol.) “It’s all very festive, especially considering there’s no alcohol,” artist Peter Robinson mused approvingly. “In Australia, people only show up to art openings for the food and drinks,” Bell shrugged. It seems wedding-crashing is more Indonesia’s speed. Gibing the popular tradition of trading sparsely-stuffed (if not outright empty) gift envelopes for access to a wedding buffet, Wiyoga Muhardanto staked out a spot right outside the biennial’s entrance and set up a nuptial tent too low to the ground to enter.
Left: Artist Robert Kusmirowski and Ujazdowski Castle curator Marianna Dobkowska at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: *Artists Budi Santoso, Setu Legi, and Ari Aminuddin at the Jakarta Biennale
Not to be discouraged, revelers eventually migrated to ruangrupa, the city’s freeform art space and collective, which in its fifteen years has built its own empire comprising gallery space, an archive, magazines, festivals, and even a radio station. It’s also a preeminent party spot, where Esche and his curators were up until the wee hours, libations courtesy of “this white guy on an ojek who drives around delivering beer.” Sunday night followed with a more public celebration at “Superbad!” a monthly concert series partially masterminded by ruangrupa’s Indra Ameng at the Jaya Pub, an expat bar with strong Cracker Barrel–on-(more)meth vibes. “It looks like a David Lynch film in here,” Köken Ergun observed, eyeing the stylized portraits of Einstein, Kafka, and Humphrey Bogart, alongside a poster bragging “I’m not a racist, I hate everyone.” The evening’s headliner was Arrington De Dionyso, a painter and musician whose self-taught repertoire ranged from Tuvan throat singing to wrangling sounds from what looked like a didgeridoo made out of PVC pipes. “My avant-garde is bigger than his avant-garde,” Papastergiadis demurred. But whose Uber was closer?
Monday morning would see competing biennial symposia in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, or, as it’s more commonly known, Jogja. Earlier this month, Java’s plucky second capital had launched the thirteenth edition of Biennale Jogja, marking its third collaborative outing with the Equator Festival, a program that plots out a thematic global itinerary, taking a closer look at Indonesia’s relationships with countries along the route. Having already made symbolic pitstops in India and the Arabian Peninsula, this year’s edition focused on Nigeria. As a theme, the two artist-curators, Jogja’s Wok the Rock and Lagos-based Jude Anogwih, selected “Hacking Conflict” (“hacking” here in the Buzzfeed-y sense of finding MacGyveresque workarounds for life’s little conundrums, not terrorizing Target shoppers).
Left: Dealer Michael Janssen and Bazaar Art Jakarta director Leo Silitonga at the Jakarta Biennale. Right: Artist Peter Robinson
Upon landing, Biennale Jogja’s Adelina Luft picked me up on her motorbike for a tour of the sites, starting with the Black Market Museum, which was set up in an abandoned house just down the street from the main venue at Jogja’s National Museum. Conceived by artist Olenrewaju Tejuoso and created with help from Angki Purbandono and the Prison Art Programs, the makeshift museum was filled with repurposed detritus, including a González-Torres-like pile of little plastic baggies, whose contents—dirt, tree bark, folded candy wrappers—intentionally looked narcotic. I thought back to that cookie.
Over at the National Museum, the façade had been blocked off by Ace House Collective’s National Committee for the Purification of Art, an objectively terrifying faux bureau replete with control booths, waiting areas, and curtained-off stalls. Visitors had to queue up to hand over passports and submit to ritual cleanings of their eyes and ears. Sure, it was just a metaphor, but I fled all the same. Inside, Joned Suryatmoko’s piece had a visually-impaired tour guide lead blindfolded visitors through the exhibition. Even without the impediments, I got the distinct impression I was missing something. Most of the display was dedicated to props or costumes—from Punkasila’s black patched jumpsuits to Emeka Udemba’s clan hoods, tailored from West African wax print fabrics—left over from the performances, artist’s talks, concerts, and workshops animating the spaces daily. Rather than reinforce national distinctions, the exhibition was structured to foster an environment of collective creativity, inviting the Nigerian artists in residence —Udemba, Ndidi Dike, and Victor Ehikhamenor, among them—to make collaborative work with local talents. Luft told me that many of these visiting artists “found a lot of similarities in terms of climate, landscape, food, and general mentality.” These moments of overlap crystallized in “Changing Cities, Shifting Spaces,” a parallel video workshop orchestrated as an extension of Anogwih’s activities with Video Art Network Lagos, in collaboration with artist Wimo Ambala Bayang and the Jogja-based collective Ruang MES 56. The films played on loop upstairs at the National Museum, but next year, with support from KFW Stiftung, they will travel to Lagos, where they will be screened as part of the city’s Videonale.
“Translation puts a text into movement, which is the most beautiful thing you can do,” curator Nicolas Bourriaud told us bright and early Tuesday morning at the Taman Budaya cultural center. Bourriaud’s keynote kicked off Jogja’s Biennale Forum with a frank assessment of object-oriented ontology and its beef with relational aesthetics. Bourriaud was hesitant to accord OOO too much credit. (“I would like to agree with much of their thinking, but they do not account for language, which is a mistake. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, in the same year DNA was discovered, Lacan theorized that the unconscious takes the form of language.”) But the curator did admit that relational aesthetics as he defined it in the 1990s no longer applies. “There are more machines on the Internet than human beings. What’s more, these robots and algorithms can communicate with one another without the presence of humans. Human beings are reduced to the status of personal data, to be used by corporations as the motor of today’s economy.” In this sense, object-oriented ontology’s terms mimic those of capitalism: “Humans are easier to control after they have been reduced to objects.”
After the lecture, Biennale Jogja director Alia Swastika and the curator of its last edition, Agung Hunijatnika, convened on stage with Bourriaud, artist Antariksa, and Equator Symposium curator Enti Supryanto. Antariksa led the charge, lambasting “the penetration of Western philosophy as a new kind of colonization” and venting his frustrations that existing trends in Indonesia were retroactively understood as “relational aesthetics.” Bourriaud seemed game to the challenge: “Let’s not replace one ethnocentrism with another,” he chided. “A theory is not a discovery. It’s a way of telling things.” He then added: “The only condition for a dialogue is the end of paranoia. Just bring whatever you have on the table. That’s it.”
That night, Bourriaud led by example, laying out all he had on the table as DJ at an impromptu party. “I think it was my most significant contribution to the Indonesian art scene so far,” the curator joked. No objections here. After all, wasn’t he just talking about how putting something in motion is the most beautiful thing you can do?
THE FIRST PERSON I met in Washington, DC, last Sunday night was Eric Holder, former attorney general of the United States. He had just arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where he would present Aretha Franklin with one of five Portrait of a Nation prizes during the museum’s first American Portrait Gala. The event, which raised a healthy $1.74 million for the museum’s exhibition program, also attracted Holder’s replacement, Loretta Lynch, as well as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“No posting!” Justice Sotomayor warned, after posing for my camera. Presumably, she had to avoid any suggestion of partisanship. In the nation’s capital, even a nonpolitical fund-raiser is going to attract more people engaged in politics or government than the arts. This was no exception.
Among the gala’s five hundred guests were at least one sitting senator (Blumenthal, of Connecticut), a proactive congressman (John Lewis, representative from Georgia and a leading figure in the civil rights movement), and some past and present ambassadors. If there were a few identifiable Republicans in the crowd, this was overwhelmingly a house of Dems. That might explain why the black-tie evening felt informal rather than forced. It also helped that the gala’s founding chairs, philanthropists Wayne and Catherine Reynolds, are an agreeable, optimistic pair who make friends of everyone.
Left: Philanthropists Wayne Reynolds and Catherine Reynolds. Right: Artist Maya Lin and Daniel Wolf.
Maya Lin was the lone visual artist among the honorees, but it was heartening to see one honored as a national treasure, rather than denounced, as Lin was in 1982, for her now celebrated Vietnam Veterans Memorial off the Washington Mall. Her design signaled the first battle of the decadelong culture wars, which seem almost quaint compared with the global terrorism of today.
A solo performance by Aretha was reason enough for many in the crowd to be there, particularly Steve Hamp, chair of the NPG’s board of commissioners, as well as MSNBC political analyst Michael Eric Dyson and his wife Marcia, who were all in the singer’s posse from Detroit, their hometown. Naturally, I was interested when Mrs. Dyson told me that her husband sometimes wrote about art. “Google him!” she said. As an art person, I was also curious about the museum’s collection, which I hadn’t seen before.
Holder hadn’t seen it either, even though he was accustomed to being in the museum during its regular hours, when it attracts an impressive 1.3 million visitors a year. “I often come here for lunch,” he said. “This museum has a very good restaurant.” The collection, however, is a bit strange.
It has official portraits of significant figures in American life dating back to Pocahontas and up to former marine corporal Kyle Carpenter, at twenty-six the youngest of the evening’s honorees. It has a tiny 3-D-printed figure of Maya Lin by Karin Sander. And it has a glamorous, well-known image of fashion designer Carolina Herrera, another honoree, taken in 1979 by Robert Mapplethorpe—the same Robert Mapplethorpe who was vilified in Washington, as well as in Cincinnati, during the culture wars of the ’90s. (Happily, he’ll be the subject of a major historical exhibition opening in March, copresented by LACMA and the Getty.)
“I met Robert in Mustique and instantly we became friends,” the Venezuelan-born Herrera recalled. In the ’70s, the private island in the Grenadines was a favorite of the jet set—and a hunting ground for the career-conscious young photographer. Though Mapplethorpe shot most portraits in his studio, he did Herrera’s at the old Mayflower Hotel, where she was then living with her husband. “Reinaldo had to hold the lights so Robert could take the picture,” Herrera said, laughing, while her award’s presenter, film director and Empire producer Lee Daniels, listened in. “Carolina is beauty, grace, and fashion,” he said. (They’re friends too.) “I love it,” she said of the portrait. “It’s my favorite. And I’m very happy it’s here.”
I asked curator Dorothy Moss why the museum didn’t commission portraits by contemporary artists that would equal its purchases of works by Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Annie Leibovitz, or Alex Katz. “That’s an interesting idea,” said Moss. “I’d really like to pursue it.” NPG director Kim Sajet didn’t think artists today would be interested in such commissions, but then wondered aloud if Kerry James Marshall would be willing to paint someone. Maybe, I thought, Aretha, who is represented in the collection only by a print, albeit an iconic one from 1968 that Milton Glaser created for Eye, a short-lived magazine that, at this point, would be a prize artifact itself. Sajet then pointed to a small self-portrait that Patti Smith drew in 1974, giving herself a long, wraithlike figure and large nose. I would call it a caricature. “I think it’s interesting to see how she thought of herself when she was starting out,” Sajet said. Point taken.
On the way into dinner, I met Carpenter, who is as long on personal charm as his dress uniform was replete with decorations. While serving in Afghanistan, Carpenter was nearly torn apart when he threw himself on a grenade to save the other members of his platoon. The shiny medals on his uniform—including the Congressional Medal of Honor—testified to his heroism, if not to his three years of surgeries and rehabilitation, though the museum’s photograph of Carpenter (by Mike McGregor) makes some of his scars visible.
Now he’s a junior at the University of South Carolina, majoring in international relations. I asked if he had political ambitions or preferred diplomatic service. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “Maybe all of the above. I already did my research abroad!” he joked, before moving off to shake the hand of baseball great Hank Aaron, the evening’s other honoree, who was schmoozing with PBS NewsHour co-anchors Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, the gala’s emcees.
With the event coming just two days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and three after a bomb killed more civilians in Beirut, Sajet began the dinner speeches with a moment of silence for the people of Lebanon and France. (The previous evening, Lin told me, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador in Washington, was to have hosted a dinner for the honorees and presenters at his home. The dinner went forward, awkwardly, she said, while the ambassador stayed in his private quarters.)
Despite the pall that the attacks cast on the proceedings, Ifill and Woodruff, known for their sober analysis of current events, introduced each honoree and presenter with lighthearted warmth. I was seated at the art table with Lin, her husband, collector and dealer Daniel Wolf, and their daughter India, who was nearly as proud of her first Oscar de la Renta gown as she was of her mother. (Her parents’ own philanthropy includes their ongoing conversion of an abandoned jail in Yonkers into artist studios and exhibition spaces.)
Left: National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss. Right: Medal of Honor winner Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC.
Earlier in the day, I’d seen Lin’s floor-crawling, wall-climbing evocation of Chesapeake Bay—in green marbles—at the newly reopened Renwick Gallery, DC’s first museum, originally the Corcoran. “I looked at that room and I thought, ‘Barnacles!’” she said. With the family was architect David Adjaye, who had recently returned from the opening of the Aïshti Foundation in Beirut. “It was tense at times,” he said, happy for a change of subject to his design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now nearing completion on the Mall. “It’s beautiful,” Lin said. “The best thing to happen to the Mall in years.” Tonight, however, he was Lin’s “trophy carrier,” as he characterized his nonspeaking role as award presenter. (All of the awards, mirror-polished stainless steel abstractions that suggest a human profile, were designed by a Washington homeboy, Barton Rubenstein).
The main course concluded, it was finally time for Aretha. In another nod to the attacks, the seventy-three-year-old Empress of Soul opened her set with a singalong of “Amazing Grace,” accompanying herself on the piano and appearing before projections of her image in years past. “Respect” and “Think” came next. People were respectful, but when she launched into “Chain of Fools,” the entire room got to its feet to dance and shout.
If only that gospel spirit could stay with us through the next election. Yeah, think, think think! Let your mind go. Let yourself be free.
UNDER A SLIVER OF MOON on a warm November night, a sampan on Aberdeen harbor ferried prominent members of Hong Kong’s art world to the city’s iconic floating restaurant, Jumbo Kingdom, for Asia Art Archive’s fifteenth anniversary fund-raiser.
Opened in the mid-1970s, the gaudy, brightly lit barge resembles a Chinese imperial palace; it’s cherished by locals in the way that many tourist landmarks are—from a distance. “I can’t believe I’ve never been here before,” I heard often as delighted old-money Hong Kongers climbed up the gilded staircase to the entrance.
Claire Hsu and her “dream team” at AAA had dedicated eight months to planning the gala, and it certainly showed. The invitations promised an “action-packed evening” in aid of a good cause, namely, ensuring the archive can continue its important work of documenting Asia’s recent art history.
As we sipped fresh lime and vodka cocktails, Antony Gormley, in town for the launch of his public art project Event Horizon, attracted much admiration, as did Adrian Cheng, whose K11 Art Foundation is the lead partner of Gormley’s project in Hong Kong. Doryun Chong talked about the need for continuity at M+ following director Lars Nittve’s impending departure in January. “Four years until the building is not that long,” said the embattled museum’s chief curator. “There’s a lot of work to do.” Artists Wu Tsang and Boychild, in residence at the smart nonprofit Spring Workshop, arrived with curator Christina Li, who wondered if her upcoming performance, involving hot chocolate and a public scrying with artists Milena Bonilla and Luisa Ungar, might be a little out there even for Spring’s usual audience.
Though the evening’s tone was merry, it was imperative, said Hsu in her welcome speech, to acknowledge the tragic events that had happened just hours before in Paris. The room, alive with chatter, fell into a respectful hush. Hsu went on to thank all those who helped the archive become a vital resource for Asian contemporary art. “How did we get here?” she asked. “Well, an idea, lots of hard work, and a galaxy of friends and supporters.”
The venue was packed, with 160 guests seated tightly at round tables that were named after the planets. “The whole community is here,” said Ingrid Chu, the archive’s curator of public programs, beaming as she looked around the room at patrons enjoying a traditional Cantonese dinner of roasted meats, wonton soup, steamed fish, and lucky long-life noodles.
Before the auction, Michael Friedman appeared via video to perform a brilliant song he’d made for the occasion, with lyrics composed of quotes from people pivotal to AAA’s success, whom he interviewed before writing the piece. The song made gentle fun of the archive’s sometimes obscure role (“We all agree it’s important, but no one’s quite sure what they do”) while lauding Hsu as both “a prophet in the desert” and a “Ming vase.” It hit lightly on big questions such as Hong Kong’s political future and the city’s position as a conduit for art in Asia, and invoked AAA’s search for a permanent home in this jungle of notoriously high rents.
Toward that optimistic end, eighty-six works had been donated for the auction, whose silent component, online at Paddle8, ended up rather too silent. Twenty-six of the lots were auctioned live, however, by the talented Francois Curiel, head of Christie’s Asia Pacific. The first was the elegant Fifteen Sheets of White Paper by Song Dong, a past resident at the archive. The creases on each sheet of paper mark 365 days of a calendar year (or 366 per leap year). The bidding was lively, with the piece selling to a determined buyer on the phone. Despite Sir David Tang’s efforts to shush everyone (and Lucy Tang’s efforts to shush her husband), the room continued to buzz amid the bids.
During the auction’s intermission, Ming Wong playfully sashayed to the stage in a blue qipao and beehive hairdo, a mask disguising his face. A man at our table groaned when the artist began lip-synching, gamely but imperfectly, a French version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis. The sale continued, with Curiel returning dressed in one of the artist-designed Pye sweatshirts we all received as gifts under our seats—surprise!
Sculptures by Liu Wei and Zhang Xiaogang fetched the most, at $115,000 each. In all, the evening raised $1.7 million for the esteemed organization, and once the numbers were in, the Bollinger was brought out, nice and cold.
FRIDAY NIGHT I spent at Cafe Figaro—a Parisian-inspired street cafe in Los Feliz—commiserating with somber French citizens speaking in hushed voices over the clink of glasses. Their grief was still on my mind as I headed the following night to the Box for a rare performance by veteran choreographer and artist Simone Forti. The eighty-year-old legend performed a dance of simple movements, shivering a flashlight in her hand as she swirled and crawled across the concrete floors of the gallery. Behind her played the quiet susurrus of the river in a projected video. Forti’s finger caressed the ground, then she stood and cast flickering hand shadows with her flashlight.
“There’s been a shooting and terrorists and that kind of brings it home,” she said with a slow shift of her body. “I noticed a hole in a window and through the pane you see half-drunk glasses of wine. It could easily be me.” Shining the flashlight across the audience, “It could have easily been us.”
“When it’s home, when it’s home, when is home. It’s close to home and it could be LA tomorrow.”
The performance ended to a standing ovation. Inevitably, the rest of the weekend was tinted, at least for me, by the cosmic pessimism that Forti had eloquently expressed. I left and made my way to Fahrenheit, the nonprofit space begun by curator Martha Kirszenbaum, and the gallery of François Ghebaly, both French citizens. Both had events planned, the launch of CARLA at Fahrenheit and an opening with Mitchell Syrop at Ghebaly, but earlier that day, CARLA and Fahrenheit sent out an e-mail to their mailing lists: “Fahrenheit will stay open until 10 PM tonight as a place of commemoration, tolerance, and resistance. Please join us for the launch of Carla magazine and to prove that we are alive and will fight madness and obscurantism.”
“After the attacks,” said Elizabeth Forney, executive director of the French Los Angeles Exchange (FLAX), “none of us wanted to be alone.” Trying not to step on Syrop’s small metal sculptures across the floor and under the love stories of Lady Jaye & Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Dorothy Iannone & Dieter Roth at Fahrenheit, the crowd drank cocktails but the scatter of conversation led to sad and hard conversations about politics: terrorism and murder, white supremacy, religion, and race. The community real and welcome, the talk bracing and necessary.
The following night, I set out to Hollywood for LAXART’s annual auction. The curiously shaped gallery, converted from a former music studio, found space on every conceivable wall and crevasse to display the work donated by artists from Liz Glynn and Glenn Ligon to Amanda Ross-Ho and Thomas Lawson. Mary Weatherford’s Hawthorne, 2015, seemed to be causing the most hunger among collectors. This is the first big event with LAXART’s new deputy director Catherine Taft, back in Los Angeles after a crucial stint helping to reopen the Whitney Museum. We met in the closed-off street between the gallery and a building just across that was set up as a lounge for the live auction of twenty-one works. She seemed especially cheered by LAXART’s community support (with over $100,000 in ticket sales alone). “We’re lucky to be eating cupcakes on the street,” she said. And we were.
Left: Artists Mario Yabarra Jr. and Karla Diaz with LAXART director Lauri Firstenberg. Right: Artist John Outterbridge. (Photos: LAXART)
I left as the live auction began, heading deeper into Hollywood to catch Nikolas Gambaroff’s opening at Overduin & Co. Amid the marbled paintings and furniture, two rough bronze masks of crude faces lay on the ground, making a loud clanging noise each time someone in the large crowd accidentally kicked one across the concrete floor. At the front of the gallery, the two masks, digitally animated, shift against a black screen. With quivering eyes and expressive lips (both creepy and cartoonishly funny), the masks sang the Association’s 1966 “Cherish.” I watched the video through twice and left with these velveteen voices and their California pop following me into the cold night:
Perish is the word that more than applies
To the hope in my heart each time I realize
That I am not gonna be the one to share your dreams
That I am not gonna be the one to share your schemes
That I am not gonna be the one to share what
Seems to be the life that you could
Cherish as much as I do yours.