“What goes on in there?” an exasperated woman wondered aloud as she passed the neoclassical slab of prime real estate that is the Puck Building, in Soho. On Monday evening, the question was more pertinent than usual, as members of the Hungry March Band blurted and blatted their Balkan stomp music outside the front door. Having been dispatched to cover the Paris Review’s Spring Revel, a benefit dinner with guest of honor Norman Mailer, I was positively atwitter about gaining admission to this most inscrutable of downtown venues. My gratification, however, was delayed. Arriving at 7 PM for cocktails, I was officiously rebuffed by a clipboard-wielding gatekeeper, who, when I said, “Press,” a word that clearly dripped icicles in her mind’s eye, said, “You’ll have to come back at nine for the event.” “Oh,” I said, deciding not to get all up in her grill. It’s so stressful being a party planner.
After some sake with a friend in the East Village, I returned to claim my rightful place. Making my way into the Grand Ballroom, where dessert was being served, I scanned the broad expanse of festive wear for familiar faces. Seeing none, not even Mailer, I retreated into the anteroom, where the free booze flowed and my friend the novelist Gary Shteyngart passed through. A “writer host” for the evening, it was Gary’s job to amuse the uptown swells who had ponied up five hundred dollars a person for their evening with Norm. Finally, there was action on the makeshift stage, as the famously pugnacious Mailer was escorted to his honorary seat above the crowd. Philip Gourevitch, the current editor of the Paris Review, ascended to the dais and grunted into the mic to check the sound.
Gourevitch welcomed the patrons and introduced E. L. Doctorow, who was to toast Mailer. Doctorow was there “to give Norman the bird,” he deadpanned, a somewhat strained double entendre. Mailer was receiving the Review’s Hadada Award, an annual honor bestowed on “a distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to the literary arts,” and so named after George Plimpton’s favorite bird, an ibis. Plimpton himself resembled a graying ibis in his later years, so the icon preserves the absent figurehead’s spirit. Doctorow described Mailer as a writer who came out of World War II “with his dukes up” and how “he’s been fighting ever since.” He mentioned Norman’s tangles with feminists, his pioneering sense of self-promotion, his machismo, his parallels with Jack London. He called Mailer a “prince of truculence” and his corpus “the most comprehensive reportage on the second half of the twentieth century.” Claiming that this would be the “strangest award” Norman would ever receive, Doctorow asked Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen to stand and deliver the cry of the hadada, a rare song that the famous nature writer has ostensibly heard. Matthiessen ululated convincingly, to mild applause.
Left: Author E. L. Doctorow. Right: Author Joan Didion.
After pleas from Mailer to turn down the spotlights, Gourevitch settled in for a brief interview. “What is a novel?” he asked. Mailer called it “a Cadillac question,” demanding 2 percent effort from the asker, 98 percent from the answerer, but cleared his throat and took a swing. “A novel is history,” he said. Actual history books are biased and inadequate. “Histories are made of rotten bricks,” he said, “novels lay straw in the mortar.” Asked to dilate on his statement, in a 1964 Paris Review interview, “Style is character,” Mailer said: “Style covers the waterfront. Style is charm, but it limits the writer’s ability.” This is a bit oblique, even for an old man. Then, as nervous laughter rose from the crowd, I swear I heard Mailer say, “If you have a small penis and a mean character, you can write a two-hundred page book and get away with it.” (I was later assured by Gourevitch and others that he actually said, “If you have a small mean spirit . . .” but really, this was Norman Mailer.)
Mailer said that he was most influenced by Picasso—the artist’s many different approaches to capturing reality. He then compared novelists to athletes, but grew impatient, saying, “But this is so lugubrious, what else?” Turning to Mailer’s latest novel, The Castle in the Forest, about the young Hitler’s grooming by an assistant to the devil, Gourevitch tried to land a jab on the old pugilist, asking Mailer whether it doesn’t let the historical Hitler off the hook to ascribe his actions to Satan’s influence. “No, it doesn’t,” Mailer answered. But this got his dander up, and he launched into a provocative spiel that the paying punters were no doubt expecting: “There’s a bit of Hitler in all of us. I have 5 percent of Hitler in me. When someone does something that pisses you off, you want to kill them. That’s the Hitler in us.”
With that, the Hungry March Band, now inside, kicked off a raucous set that emptied the ballroom of bankers and blue-hairs but quick. One aging matron, plugging her ears, said to me, “It’s like they’re trying to drive us out of here!” It was rather rackety. Perhaps the band was supposed to conjure the carnivalesque vibe of Plimpton’s legendary parties on East Seventy-second Street, but it felt forced. It was Monday night, and those who could afford a thousand dollars for a pair of tickets most likely had to work the next day, moving sectors of the stock market around to suit their whims. After all, there’s 5 percent of Hitler in each of us.
The food was awful and the company mixed (from uptown and down-) at Sunday’s Earth Day benefit gala for the New Museum of Contemporary Art. The evening was very nice, as was the setting. Nice weather accompanied 670 friendly guests to the princely precincts of Cipriani 42nd Street, the former bank opposite Grand Central Station. Inflatables, or their approximations, were in the air. Not only did strings of foam pearls resembling round balloons (arranged by Jes Gordon) dangle from a black-and-white fabric canopy two stories above our expensively coiffed heads, but one of the evening’s two guests of honor was Jeff Koons, king of the cast inflatable. Richard Prince, whose print Drawing is currently featured on Marni Balloon handbags, was his cohonoree.
This slam-dunk duo of artist celebrity helped draw just over two million dollars to the hungry coffers of the new New Museum headquarters on the Bowery, which are slated to open in November. That’s eight hundred thousand dollars more than the annual gala raised last year, certainly a nice way to celebrate the once-scruffy museum’s thirtieth anniversary—the pearl one, in case you didn't know. Seven months before its scheduled completion, the building has already transformed its surroundings, once the right address only for derelicts (and the odd artist). Not only is Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn racing to move her Upper East Side gallery Salon 94 to Freeman’s Alley, behind the new building, but the neighborhood is now bourgeois enough to boast new high-rise apartment houses ugly enough to thumb their overscaled noses at sensitive citizens like you and me. It also has several exclusive nightclubs (none as racy as the old Sammy’s Bowery Follies) and the biggest Wholefoods Market in Manhattan.
All the same, you'd think there would be more excitement to the event’s atmosphere, instead of a sense of obligation. People were there to show support. Certainly, they did not come for the meal. (We could all smell the Chilean sea bass coming long before it reached the tables.) Hopefully, the New Museum will hold future fundraisers in its own building, with some more reliable company to do the catering. (Wholefoods crudités, anyone?)
It didn’t matter. At such humongous affairs, it’s the cocktail hour that counts. That’s the benefit-goer’s best chance to talk trash to power and check out the outfits. I learned that Glenn O’Brien and Gina Nanni had flown directly from the Menil Collection’s twentieth-anniversary celebration in Houston—a masked ball attended by far fewer artists than those in the crowd before us. Clifford Ross and Mike Starn were quick to sing the praises of collectors Shelley and Philip Aarons. And Marianne Boesky showed off Liam Culman, her husband. “I'm not in the art world,” he said when I asked them to pose. “You are when you're out with me,” she retorted.
When the blini-and-caviar hors d’oeuvres ran out, the table hunt began. Rachel Feinstein and John Currin were placed at Dianne Wallace's; Nate Lowman wasn’t. Neville Wakefield was seated with Richard Prince; Barbara Gladstone wasn’t. Indeed, there were many odd couples about. John Waters drew Simon de Pury; Jeffrey Deitch got Thelma Golden. Laura Hoptman entertained Urs Fischer; Andrew Lord squired Aggie Gund. Mary Boone appeared solo; Jane Rosenblum arrived with Rob Wynne and left with Curt Marcus.
I lucked out as a guest of Rachel and Jean-Pierre Lehmann, who seated me with Sant Ambroeus restaurateur Gherardo Guarducci, art adviser Raphael Castoriano, and Public Art Fund director Rochelle Steiner. The Miuccia Prada table was next to ours, though instead of Prada it had Amanda Sharp, Vik Muniz, and Tom Sachs. To our left was Year of the Dog star Molly Shannon and her artist husband, a nice man with a wonderful name: Fritz Chesnut.
During the first course, an unsightly tangle of prosciutto and dessicated baby pear, New Museum curator Richard Flood gave his buddy Prince a spirited introduction, calling the artist “a combination of Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra—the wizened recluse and the coolest kid on the block.” Prince gamely thanked the museum “for keeping me in the picture,” though he had told me earlier he was “too drunk” to make a speech.
In his hagiography of Koons, collector Dakis Joannou limned all the hard times the artist had weathered in years past. Coming during the week that Calvin Tomkins’s peckish New Yorker profile noted Koons’s studio payroll of eighty-plus and put his expenses at several hundred thousand dollars a month, the hardship theme seemed ill timed, to say the least. Odder still was that Koons cited New Museum founder Marcia Tucker three times in his remarks and ignored Lisa Phillips. Nice one!
At my table, the presentation inspired talk of art, the exposure afforded by art fairs, and the ups and downs of art careers like those of Prince and Koons. Rachel Lehmann spoke proudly of the artists’ works in her collection, how long it took Prince’s joke paintings to find an audience, and the fact that she's now priced out of his market, currently the province of manipulators who have made important art indistinguishable from expensive art. (Not so nice!)
Taste was again put to the test during a live auction (conducted by the indefatigable de Pury) of remaining works from the New Museum's commissioned editions. (A Jim Hodges glass tree branch brought the biggest price, forty-eight thousand dollars). As Nicole Atkins and the Sea took the stage to belt out a few ear-banging rockers—making further conversation impossible—the room began to clear. “If this were my wedding, I would shoot myself,” said Castoriano, glancing at the empty tables around us. Peeking in our goodie bags, I found temporary tattoos that included a winged heart inscribed with the words FOREVER NEW—a nice touch. If only it were true.
Left: Artist Fritz Chesnut with actress Molly Shannon. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Artist Cindy Sherman with musician David Byrne. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)
In São Paulo, everything is upside down: eighty-six-degree autumns, dinners at midnight, ubiquitous smokers, gracious people. It all proved that, even in the most inverted worlds, ever-increasing fairs are an existential necessity; in addition to its well-known biennial, São Paulo now has another cultural attraction: SP Arte, which in its third year is rapidly establishing itself as another essential event in any contemporary-art globe-trotter’s diary. Still, some dealers didn't even bother: According to gallery director Cristina Candeloro, Luísa Strina was “in Miami working on the next Miami Basel.” With almost no other openings that week, the city’s cultural institutions seemed strangely apathetic. Nevertheless, the fair served up an excellent survey of Brazilian artists and galleries (only six of the fifty-nine booths were from abroad), from Fortes Vilaça, Brito Cimino, and Casa Triângulo to Ernesto Neto, Rochelle Costi, and Lúcia Koch—the latter presenting, in a parallel program, a large installation evoking, in her own words, “a booth, a garage, and a cell.”
Arriving at Niemeyer’s famous pavilion in Ibirapuera park directly from the airport, I rolled in just in time for the opening-night festivities. Portuguese dealer Mário Sequeira was delighted: “I already sold most of what is on view!” Eyeing his roster of European superstars, including Franz West and Douglas Gordon, I wondered at the hint of surprise in his voice. Dealer Luciana Brito confirmed that she, too, had seen a boost in sales, thanks to a rising generation of collectors. During a late dinner at renowned Pizzaria Bráz with, among others, curators David Barro and Paulo Reis, artist José Bechara, and dealers Lúcio and Flávia Albuquerque, discussion turned to the fair's crucial role in bridging the gaping chasm between contemporary art and the public. Fair director Fernanda Feitosa touched on the same idea, saying, “We are young but already appeal to new audiences. The fair will grow and everybody will ask how Brazil could have lived for so many years without it.”
Feitosa made her comment as she drove me back from a party at dealer Fábio Cimino's Paulista Avenue apartment (a sort of private museum with amazing works by, among others, Nelson Leirner). This was on Friday, my third-consecutive night out—par for the course for many of the guests, who stayed out until 5 AM dancing, keyed up on chopp, a light beer, or the country’s celebrated caipirinhas. There, as at previous events in the posh mansions of dealers Regina Pinho and Raquel Arnaud, a mix of young artists, curators, and collectors mingled to the sound of Brazilian electronic music coming from—where else?—iPods. If, at Arnaud’s house, Madrid-based collector João Teixeira Gomes held court for a rapt audience by describing his long car journey through Africa, at Cimino’s I was the one being noticed. Curator Inês Raphaelian and friend Bruno Assami played the role of my personal hosts, even warning me of the menacing photographer making the rounds that evening. Raphaelian explained: “It's for Glamourama, a website featuring celebrities.” I didn’t even know there were any.
Conversations that evening were dominated by issues surrounding the biennial—reports of financial misconduct were going into print in the city’s major newspaper, yet the president of the promoting foundation had just been reelected on Thursday. These heady topics also figured in an earlier engaging tête-à-tête with curator Adriano Pedrosa at his charming triplex apartment on the seventeenth story of a Jardins skyscraper. Chat was also refreshing at Galeria Vermelho's intellectual soiree with artist Ana Maria Tavares, curator Martin Grossman, and dealers Eliana Finkelstein and Eduardo Brandão, among others, where we discussed the conservative programs that have marked São Paulo’s museums in recent years.
On Saturday morning, I skipped a collector’s brunch at Galeria Fortes Vilaça to pay a visit to artist Sandra Cinto at her studio in the popular borough of Vila Madalena, where she offered me her latest self-published book. After seeing José Leonilson’s ironic drawings at the Estação Pinacoteca and attending a crowded opening of Antonio Manuel’s survey show at downtown’s Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, I made a last-minute trip to the fair, where I witnessed dealer Márcia Fortes’s daughter hanging out at the gallery's booth, looking inordinately pleased every time a featured sound sculpture emitted its funny loud noise. At 8 PM, Feitosa’s personal driver arrived to pick me up. While taking me to the airport, I noted the city’s uncanny lack of advertising, a result of the mayor's recent ban on “visual pollution.” Listening to Tribalistas’s “Já sei namorar” (I Already Know How to Date) on the plane, I left Brazil armed with four bottles of duty-free cachaça and affirmations of my initial impression that Brazil is different—better, perhaps: Even the rain of a tropical storm, which on Saturday had caught me unprepared, was warm.
Left: Curator Gianfranco Maraniello with artists Tobias Rehberger and Olafur Elisasson. (Photo: Roberto Arcari) Right: Dealer Burkhard Riemschneider and friend.
Standing alone on Thursday evening, barefoot in the garden grass, I was giving my bloody blisters a rest from their hot-pink instruments of torture when Berlin dealer Burkhard Riemschneider approached. I asked: “Who’s the blonde babe whom I took a photo of earlier? Pilar something?” “She’s with Haunch of Venison in London,” said Riemschneider, then, throwing me a red herring: “The gallery that was just bought by Christie’s.” I jested that if he didn’t stop dragging that hard silver suitcase around there’d be rumors that he’d come to Milan to buy out Gió Marconi. But the real topic of the evening’s celebration, held in the private residence of Muccia Prada, was On Otto, German artist Tobias Rehberger’s most recent megacollaboration, a “backward film.” The piece isn’t played backward but was, rather, made in reverse, beginning with the advertising poster and proceeding to the credits, the sound, the editing, the sets, the storyboard . . .
The opening reception preceding the dinner was packed: Lines to enter the four pavilions the artist had constructed were worse than those at Epcot Center in the '80s. Rehberger wowed viewers once again as the maestro of dark mazes of intent, like Berlin Philharmonic architect Hans Scharoun with a wild streak. He let the reins loose, then put together the pieces as they returned. Each maker was given three weeks to create their part of the exquisite corpse, with successive participants allowed to see everything that had come before. Ennio Morricone’s score was based on the film’s credits alone, a sweet series of comiclike bones arranged in a tic-tac-toe grid by French design duo Kuntzel & Deygas. This apparently suited him: Morricone had told Rehberger that he never needed to see a film before deploying his trademark, universally lauded sound.
Who turned out to inspect the results, besides a sea of unfamiliar Italian faces? German collectors Thomas and Annette Grässlin had flown in (Thomas once produced a Rehberger Japanese teahouse–cum–film project), as had old-school friend-of-Kippenberger Hanno Huth. Peu à peu, the unknowns became known: I shared a taxi home with production designer Jeffrey Beecroft and met Sylvie Landra, the film’s editor, in the hotel elevator.
Left: Collector Annette Grässlin and artist Carmen Gheorghe. Right: Collector Thomas Grässlin and film producer Hanno Huth.
No Hollywood celebrities were in sight, but the art stars made up it with their own personal dramas. Olafur Eliasson, on whose coattails I grasped tightly in order to gain entrance to the private dinner for twenty, had left his life in the taxi: laptop, cell phone, calendar, and tuxedo (in case the dinner was black-tie; he couldn’t remember). The widespread panic attending to a scatterbrained moment convincingly proved that galleries, which seem to hold limitless power, are always beholden to their artists. Riemschneider stood on high alert. Marconi was glued to his cell phone, his charm the life jacket ensuring the uninterrupted operation not only of Olafur’s practice but also that of his galleries across the world. Joep van Lieshout, whose new exhibition at Marconi’s grand gallery had just opened, asked, “Do you think we should call Tanya Bonakdar and advise her to stay calm?” Last word before leaving was that the driver was in Bergamo; no doubt he’d charge a pretty penny for an overnight bag containing Eliasson’s future.
The scenario spurred on the thought: Could you run a gallery backward? The imaginary first step—convincing a collector to buy an as-yet-unknown work by an unnamed artist—seemed so unlikely that my already significant respect for Miuccia Prada increased to an Italianate rispetto-one. She had taken a leap, trusting Rehberger to produce a “film” for which no visual proposals could be made. Rehberger introduced me to the producer Lisa Feinstein—whose name didn’t register—who then introduced me to another behind-the-scenes mover I didn’t know, despite her stellar credit list (including working with Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg). The on-set gossip seemed straight out of a '50s-era guidebook on how to be a diva: Rumor had it that Mickey Rourke’s heavy demands for clothing (some €100,000 worth of Prada) got him dropped from the film, and Kim Basinger had mistaken Rehberger for the porter on their first meeting. Cut to the martini shot—as I left the party, Rehberger and Prada had broken out a deck of cards. Such harmless fun! With nothing harder than Viagra on offer, I tumbled back to the hotel at an unusually respectable hour.
Left: Artist Michael Portnoy, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer. Right: Artist Michael Bell-Smith and Rhizome.org director Lauren Cornell. (Unless noted, all photos: David Velasco)
Am I the only one disconcerted by the decor at Chelsea megaclub Hiro Ballroom? Any flat surface that isn’t wood-paneled is embellished with either kanji characters or questionable pseudoerotic tableaux. Otherwise, it’s a lovely space, and Rhizome.org, the New Museum’s new-media affiliate, which curates both real-world and virtual art exhibitions, made the most of the intimate lighting and cozy booths for its benefit on Monday evening. Organized by director Lauren Cornell, the event featured three bands with legs in the art world—Gang Gang Dance, Professor Murder, and YACHT—and multimedia artist Cory Arcangel as MC.
VIPs received a pair of chopsticks from the desk and a welcome from Cornell, who was surprisingly warm and equanimous given that an Artforum staffer (who will remain unnamed) had rear-ended her boyfriend’s rental car the day before. We ascended to the mezzanine, where attendees—mostly thirty- and fortysomething friends of the New Museum—adopted the hunched posture characteristic of people eating noodles from take-out boxes. “Oddly enough, I’m nervous,” said Arcangel, who sat in a corner next to curator Hanne Mugaas. He was preparing for his stage duties by hastily reading a printout of Wikipedia’s entry on “Master of Ceremonies.” “I wouldn’t be nervous if I could take a computer up there with me,” he added, shoring up his geek-chic status. As Arcangel climbed up on stage and introduced the evening, the slightly richer guests bought drinks from the bar (it was decidedly a fund-raiser) and the slightly richest took part in the silent auction. Artist Leo Villareal bid frequently and enthusiastically on Rick Silva’s Recap, but lost out in the final hour to philanthropist and Eyebeam founder John Johnson. One quirky inclusion on the block was a Conceptual piece by artist Lee Walton, who promised to dedicate each of a future golf game’s eighteen holes to corresponding high bidders. “I love the idea of being pressured to land a hole in one for a collector,” explained Walton.
From stage, YACHT—Jona Bechtolt’s one-man band—chanted, “If you say it out loud, you can make it happen!” The flashing, fluorescent video screen that served as backdrop to his set drew a comment from curator Nick Hallett: “I have friends who call this ‘seizure art.’ They wouldn’t be caught dead at this. They’re ‘upstanding’—you know, book deals and the like.”
Next to take the stage was Professor Murder, fronted by Foxy Production video artist Michael Bell-Smith, whose set was driven by the taiko-drumming-on-speed sound that has recently characterized so many of the best Brooklyn bands. While they rocked out, I exchanged hellos with Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, who found a way (in thirty seconds!) to weave together the words “Karl Marx,” “Angola,” “Venice Biennale,” “Chinese community,” and, if I indeed heard correctly, “era of the documentary.”
Brian DeGraw, Gang Gang Dance’s synth player, had predicted backstage, “None of our fans will be here. It’s the $35 ticket.” But that wasn’t the only reason they seemed subdued; drummer Tim DeWit explained, “We’ve also been recording for days at our studio. I didn’t get any sleep last night.” Still, the four-piece group put on an energetic show, layering their signature reverb and effects over inexorable sixteenth-note-based drumming. They enthralled an audience that ranged from Cameron Bird, the frontman of Architecture in Helsinki (an Australian indie-pop band), to Craig Konyk, an actual architect. Now and then, frontwoman Lizzi Bougatsos would punctuate her wordless ululations with a coltish kick of her heel, and everyone’s hearts would melt.
Just as Bougatsos and DeGraw (both currently exhibiting work at the Swiss Institute) have no compunctions about crossing disciplines, neither does celebrated artist-of-all-trades Brian O’Doherty, whose alter ego Patrick Ireland has been a regular feature of his art since he adopted the persona in 1972. That same evening, O’Doherty presided over the opening of his retrospective at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. He spoke about his novel in progress: “It’s called Cross-Dresser’s Secret and is about an extraordinary man who lived half his life as a woman.” And when will it be published? “Give me a couple more years.”
Left: Critic and curator Rachel Greene, Whitney curator Shamim Momin, and artist Sue De Beer. Right: Artist Leo Villareal with Rhizome.org founder Mark Tribe.
While MoMA’s John Elderfield chatted with dealer Frederieke Taylor, Carlo McCormick turned up, revisiting the site of “The Downtown Show,” the nostalgic blockbuster he curated last year. Surveying the graying guests scattered among the crowd, I wondered if his ruefully humorous comment—“Well, we all left ‘The Downtown Show’ alive”—was meant to sound as portentous as it did. Though O’Doherty said it felt like he’d made all the work on display in “a long afternoon,” the show, spanning sixty-two years and five of his personae, offered a broad overview of his playful but erudite art. The show is titled “Beyond the White Cube,” but it was striking that, as with Rhizome’s experimental benefit, neither event ventured much beyond its respective white-cube-laden neighborhood. The Rhizome event fell just a couple blocks short of Chelsea’s gallery district, while the veterans celebrating with O’Doherty were within spitting distance of the East Village of yore. It was almost as if, after all the discipline-crossing, no one wanted to stray too far from those very galleries they’d finally managed to escape.
A giant sign made of flowers reading SMILE, YOU’RE IN SHARJAH greets visitors at one of the city’s busiest intersections. But on the drive over to the smaller emirate from Dubai International Airport, I saw little to smile about. The area is bloated on oil steroids, evidenced by a stark increase in pollution, congestion, and chaotically dispersed buildings since my last visit two years ago. Against this backdrop, the eighth edition of the Sharjah Biennial—presided over by Princess Hoor al-Qasimi and titled “Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change”—opened with a provocative question regarding art’s efficacy vis-à-vis environmental damage. With over two hundred guests flown in at the biennial’s expense and catalogues and folders printed on nonrecycled paper, the exhibition’s organizers hardly seemed to have taken the show’s thematic concerns fully to heart. One exception to the inconsistency was artist Tea Mäkipää, who shamed us all with her hard-won artistic contribution: a twenty-four day ground journey to Sharjah from Weimar, which she religiously documented on her blog.
The two-day opening festivities began on Wednesday, April 4, when H. H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, opened the exhibition alongside Rolf Schnellecke, the mayor of Wolfsburg (Sharjah’s twin city and a potentially important economic partner). In the evening, over three hundred invited notables had the opportunity to experience Middle Eastern hospitality at the gala dinner and awards ceremony. Following a long and sumptuous halal dinner, thirsty revelers rushed to Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, lured by the prospects of a not-so-halal open bar sponsored by Dubai gallery the Third Line and Bidoun magazine. (Though strictly illegal in Sharjah, alcohol is tolerated in Dubai’s numerous licensed venues.) The following evening’s program offered even more contrast. After a formal alfresco dinner at the Radisson hosted by the city’s commerce department, artists, curators, and journalists enjoyed the assorted shabby nightclubs and bars in neighboring midnight oasis Ajman. After a pint with higher-ups at two other biennials, Marieke Van Hal (Athens) and Paul Domela (Liverpool), I repaired to low-key joint the Baywatch, where a tame erotic dance performed by a group of teenage Filipinas was received in good humor by a crew of artists, including Marjolijn Dijkman, Kasper Akhoj, Tue Greenfort, and Tomas Saraceno.
Left: Artist Kasper Akhoj and perfomer Namik Minter/ Donelle Woolford. Right: Manifesta International Foundation director Hedwig Fijen, Athens Biennial director Marieke Van Hal, and art adviser Victoria Anstead.
Despite my initial misgivings, the exhibition featured a number of site-specific works made in response to the local context and the concept of art and ecology. These included newly commissioned pieces by Lara Almarcegui, Greenfort, Dan Perjovschi, and Peter Fend, as well as the first-ever staging of Gustav Metzger’s Stockholm, June (phase 1), featuring 120 cars simultaneously blowing combustion fumes into a large plastic cube. Equally compelling was a community-specific project by e-Xplo (comprising Rene Gabri, Heimo Lattner, and Erin McGonigle) and Ayreen Anastas. Using recordings of migrant workers singing, the artist created a parcours of sound installations, literally offering a voice to the deprived laborers.
The multifaceted relationship between art and ecology was further articulated during a three-day symposium organized by Michaela Crimmin of London’s RSA, Latitudes (Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna), and the American University of Sharjah, as well as during an accompanying film program curated by Mark Nash. A surprise appearance by Rem Koolhaas riled some spirits. His cameo prompted a fervent set-to between the Dutch architect and members of e-Xplo, who were irritated by Koolhaas’s refusal of architecture’s moral responsibility, as well as by his skeptical reactions to Mike Davis’s texts denouncing the unglamorous reality behind the UAE’s recent economic success. Koolhaas responded that, unlike contemporary art, his profession makes less room for institutional critique.
Before heading back to London, under the pretense of environmental correctness I shared a 110-mile cab ride with Manifesta International Foundation director Hedwig Fijen to Abu Dhabi to see the master plan of Saadiyat (Arabic for “paradise”) Island. The mockup of the twenty-seven-billion-dollar cultural district—which includes Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s design for a franchise of the Louvre—turned out to be a devastating showcase of neoliberal attitudes run amok, in which culture becomes synonymous with the leisure industry. I was even more appalled by the Biennale Park project, comprising nineteen pavilions situated along a canal (sounds familiar . . .), bolstered by a detailed economic-impact analysis conducted by international management consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. While it’s no secret that today’s biennials frequently serve as many economic considerations as they do artistic ones, never before have I seen one so cynically instrumentalized to serve nonartistic interests. Suddenly, the Sharjah Biennial appeared as innocent as a grassroots initiative, its clumsy eco-activism and genuine commitment to contemporary art making it appear a quaint, frail species.
Left: Rolf Schnellecke, mayor of Wolfsburg, with H. H. Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi. Right: Artists Carey Young and Christine Sullivan.