Left: Ellipse Foundation chairman João Oliveira-Rendeiro with Ellipse Foundation curator Alexandre Melo. Right: New Museum chief curator Richard Flood with Ellipse Foundation curator Manuel E. González and dealer Barbara Gladstone. (All photos: Miguel Amado)
After promotional events held earlier this year in New York, Basel, São Paulo, and Madrid, Lisbon’s rentrée was marked last weekend by the long-awaited opening of the new art center devoted to the recently developed collection of the Ellipse Foundation. Chaired by collector and banker João Oliveira-Rendeiro, the foundation was endowed with around twenty-five million dollars in order to create, as he put it, “one of the most important collections begun this century.” Leading Portuguese curators Alexandre Melo and Pedro Lapa, along with curator Manuel E. González, formerly head of the JPMorgan Chase Art Collection in New York, have spent the last two years combing fairs and biennials, bringing together a substantial body of work that was unveiled Sunday to five hundred invited guests. As suggested by the exhibition title, “Open House,” there were numerous acquisitions to review“perhaps too many,” as Melo later confessedsince the show’s organizing principle seemed to be “here’s what we bought.”
Portugal hasn’t attracted this level of attention from the international art world since the opening of Porto’s Museu de Serralves in 1999, and after a ride to Cascais in a chartered bus that allowed for coastal sightseeing, the recently converted twenty-thousand-square-foot warehouse on the outskirts of Lisbon was soon packed. Revealing where the money is being spent, several high-profile New York dealers were in attendance, among them Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, Angela Choon of David Zwirner, David Leiber of Sperone Westwater, and Steve Henry of Paula Cooper. Other public figures included members of the Portuguese political and economic intelligentsia, President Sampaio among them; Madrid gallerists Pepe Cobo and Elba Benítez; and curators and artists Richard Flood, Ulrich Loock, João Fernandes, Louise Lawler, Julião Sarmento, and Glenn Ligon. It seems that few Portuguese artists and curators were invited; as Melo stated, “The collection isn’t about local production.” True enough, as only 9 out of 126 artists in the collection are Portuguese. But neither does it seem to concern key national institutions and players, as collaborations seem only in the works with international private foundations and museums.
Left: Artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Dealer Marian Goodman and Serralves Museum director João Fernandes.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s enthusiasm as they wandered the vast space. Flood repeated, “Very impressive,” then asked me where he could find “that wonderful Mike Kelley sculpture,” as he wanted to show it to Gladstone. I led them to the upper floor, where we encountered González, who graciously accepted their congratulations. Gladstone was effusive: “The collection is incredibly sophisticated. The selection of works is very goodinstallations, photography, and video that reflect the spirit of our time.” María de Corral, cocurator of the last Venice Biennale, agreed. “Everything looks great, and there are so many major works that are so difficult to purchase today,” she said, referring to a group of photographs from several Pictures-generation artists. There seemed to be something for everyone, from Thomas Hirschhorn’s large-scale installation to Mona Hatoum’s delicate floor sculpture. However, mingling with a wider range of guests, it quickly became apparent that established male artists from Europe and America dominated, raising a few awkward questions. While Oliveira-Rendeiro and company guided the president around the galleries, I had the chance to talk with Choon, who had ample reason to appreciate the foundation’s efforts, explaining that Stan Douglas’s new project, based on a famous Kurosawa movie, is being funded with Ellipse money.
The festivities continued in an old fort overlooking the Cascais Bay, one of Portugal’s most stunning natural wonders. A storm had just blown through, and, with torches leading us through the “Citadel,” the venue proved a perfect environment for dinner. New Yorkers enjoyed Portuguese dishes like mussels in three-sweet-pepper vinaigrette, and I enjoyed my conversation with my tablemate David Leiber, who mentioned that his gallery is negotiating the sale of a Bruce Nauman to the foundation and that he vacations at nearby Algarve regularly. After a welcome speech by Oliveira-Rendeiro and a charming fado concert, a party area was unveiled; Lawler, artist Vasco Araújo, and gallerist Cristina Guerra lit up the dance floor. The revelry didn’t last long; perhaps the late meal and early-morning flights conspired to end the night for many just as it was beginning. Visibly satisfied, Oliveira-Rendeiro elucidated how the initial investment fund, along with the aborted negotiations with the Museu de Serralves to host the collection, had created the Ellipse Foundation, as well the difference between this private initiative and the Berardo Museum, due to open next year and partially funded by the public sector. I asked about the future. “We still have more or less half of the acquisitions budget, so the collection will grow and new shows will present works usually inaccessible in Portugal,” he said. After greeting Melo, he concluded: “Today is just the beginning of this project.” Knowing I would never find my way back to Lisbon, I accepted a friend’s offer of a ride back into town. At the door, the cherry on top of the cake: Wrapped up in a cloth bag, a catalogue beautifully designed by the ubiquitous M/M (Paris) was being offered to each guest. Perfect bedside reading.
Left: I-20 Gallery's Paul Judelson and artist João Onofre. Right: Collector Alexandra Pinho and artist Louise Lawler.
Left: Dealer Pablo León de la Barra and artist Marcelo Krasilcic. Right: São Paulo Biennial curator Lisette Lagnado. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)
Muggings, pickpockets, carjackings, red-light robberies, and drive-by shootings are just some of the tourist attractions listed in my guide to São Paulo. Sadly, Brazil’s largest city (the world’s second most populous) is better known for its high crime rate than its high-minded art biennial, the second oldest after Venice. This goes some distance in explaining why Prada and Marc Jacobs were little in evidence and eight-megapixel cameras remained locked in hotel safes during the low-key opening of its twenty-seventh edition. I wasn’t the only person who had adopted “the chameleon strategy,” which, according to my guide, offers the best chances of survival in the urban jungle.
Following the Brazilian government’s policy of encouraging alternative fuels, guests were greeted with a bottle of spring water instead of the obligatory warm white wine. The lack of alcoholic drinks didn’t help the austere atmosphere that held sway in the purpose-built pavilion by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, though it did allow for a sober look at the art. Several friends from London, unable to cope with unlubricated viewing, were seen slipping out to a nearby bar.
Entitled “How to Live Together” and curated by a team headed up by Hélio Oiticica scholar, writer, and independent curator Lisette Lagnado, this installment of the half-century-old biennial saw the welcome eradication of the outmoded national presentations that have haunted the exposition since its inception. With Roland Barthes and Oiticica as guiding lights, the show favored socially conscious practices and engaged themes by now all-but-synonymous with the contemporary biennialthe city, identity, cultural creolization, each especially relevant to multicultural Brazilian society. The show freely combined the usual suspects (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Monica Bonvicini, Tacita Dean), historic contemporary figures (Marcel Broodthaers, Gordon Matta-Clark, Dan Graham), and young names (Roman Ondák, Loulou Cherinet, Servet Koçyigit). The biennial’s set piece was definitely Nikos Charalambidis’s Social Gym, 2006, a carnival float filled with policemen and samba dancers, while the neighboring installation by Thomas Hirschhorn looked blunt and generic (and was, for me, the show’s biggest disappointment). After four hours on-site, I further experienced the Brazilian melting pot in the biennial’s unofficial hangout, a karaoke joint in Liberdade, one of São Paulo’s most lively areas and home to the world’s largest Japanese community outside Japan.
Left: Exo curator Lygia Nobre (center) with friends. Right: Edificio Italia. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)
The following day, the most daring visitors took advantage of the opportunity to lunch with artists from Rio de Janeiro at Jardim Miriam Arte Clube, which was hosting one of the biennial’s educational projects in the middle of the remote favelas (aka shantytowns) on the city’s south side. I was among those who opted for a different kind of thrill, having accepted the invitation of Ligia Nobre, curator of the EXO residency at Niemeyer’s monstrously beautiful Edificio Copan, to watch the sunset from its rooftop. As if the views from the thirty-second floor weren’t enough, an hour found me higher still, on the forty-second floor of the neighboring Edifício Itália, for a cocktail party thrown by an international consortium of dealersGaleria Fortes Vilaça, kurimanzutto, Alexander and Bonin, Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., and Stephen Friedman Galleryto celebrate the participation of their artists in the biennial. This party, where the gallerists were happily rubbing shoulders with members of several museum acquisition committees (including Tate’s), was certainly the place to be for those who enjoy mingling with friends in high places.
On Saturday night, I began my weekend follies at the party hosted by São Paulo–born, New York–based photographer Marcelo Krasilcic, who fell short of his initial goal of gathering dozens of Marcelos in one place but did a great job of bringing in the young, rich, and beautiful. The jollity continued on Sunday at the church-cum-nightclub Gloria (reminiscent of New York’s Limelight), where artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster was showing her latest video work, accompanied by a deep-house sound track and the “best caipirinhas in town.”
On my last day in São Paulo, I paid a visit to Galeria Vermelho to taste the latest work of Danish collective Superflexan energy drink developed on a “fair-trade basis” to undercut and expose the monopolistic practices of multinational corporations artificially suppressing the prices of guarana, the raw material used to produce the most popular Brazilian sodas. During the tasting, guided by Galeria Vermelho’s charismatic cofounder Eliana Finkelstein, I discovered its crisp flavor and a distinctive spice of controversy. Originally slated for presentation in the biennial, the work was removed after the president of Fundação Bienal de São Paulo judged that it was against the “purposes foreseen in the laws of the foundation” (i.e., it could upset his colleagues from the powerful drink industry). Regardless of its artistic and countercapitalist qualities, it tasted great and, unlike any corporate, industrially produced guarana, provided a natural power boost for the rest of the day. The afternoon spent in Vermelho’s slick but cozy interiors, designed by Paulo Mendes da Rocha (winner of the 2006 Pritzker Prize), left me with a conviction that this gallery is definitely one to look out for in the future.
Left: Artist Thomas Hirschhorn with gallerists Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri of kurimanzutto. Right: Curator Dan Cameron. (Photos: Rafal Niemojewski)
That evening, the biennial’s crowd split into two groups: Those bound for the Frieze Art Fair rushed to the airport, while the rest of us headed to the coast in search of the mandatory Brazilian tan. Only minor accidents, caused by the caipirinhas, were reported; made with cachaça, the local sugarcane alcohol, they were served absolutely everywhere but the biennial.
Left: Gallerist David Risley and David Risley Gallery's Nick Runeckles. Right: Clay Machine Gun. (Unless noted, all photos: Michael Wilson)
My Frieze Art Fair experience began gently this year, with a leisurely Thursday lunchtime stroll around Camden Arts Centre’s exhibition of sugar-sweet paintings by LA-based artist Laura Owens, the near-empty gallery contrasting nicely with the frenzy that I imagined underway in and around Regent’s Park. My next stop, Tate Britain, felt similarly relaxed; the Turner Prize show was still pulling punters, but not enough to make getting close to current favorite Tomma Abts’s subtle, diminutive canvases problematic. Viewers lingered thoughtfully over installations by Mark Titchner and Phil Collins and generally managed more intelligent commentary on Rebecca Warren’s lumpy sculptures than, on the evidence of a concluding video interview at least, the artist herself is capable of. All very civilized.
After a coffee break, I hopped an eastbound tube for the opening of shows by Matthew Monahan and Katy Moran at Modern Art, and the mood began to shift in a more predictably riotous direction. Vyner Streetnow home to a string of galleries including Vilma Gold, David Risley, Fred, Canal, and VINEspacewas packed and noisy by 7 PM as people staggered from one space to the next, sucking down a beer or three at each. As I caught up with my hosts for the trip, an urgent drumroll and a squall of discordant guitar signaled the beginning of a cacophonous storefront set by Clay Machine Gun, an up-and-coming girl punk band featuring the Clash’s Mick Jones’s daughter, Lauren.
From there it was back west for music of a different stripe at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Programmed by Cerith Wyn Evanswhose solo exhibition filled (and, in the case of the main downstairs space, stripped architecturally bare) the elegant gallerythe invite-only evening event drew an animated multigenerational crowd of art-world faces and fans including fashion designer Pam Hogg, writer Stewart Home, gallerists Martin McGowan, Max Wigram, and Christabel Stewart, and artists Wolfgang Tillmans, Angela Bulloch, and Simon Popper (“crush of the London art world,” according to my companion). After a look around, we filed into the theater for a performance by No Bra, a statuesque androgyne who ranted sardonically over a bare-bones electronic backing. Wyn Evans lapped it up; I was less convinced, so . . . east again for the Zoo Art Fair after-party at the Tabernacle Bar & Grill, where curator Gavin Wade and slimvolume publisher Andy Hunt were tearing up the dance floor in a style that bordered on the alarming.
Left: No Bra. Right: Hotel Gallery's Christabel Stewart, filmmaker and designer Marcus Verner Hed, and artist Alexis Marguerite Teplin.
Come Friday afternoon, it was time to get serious, at a Frieze Talk titled “New Performativity?” in which art historian and critic Claire Bishop attempted to nudge curator Francesco Bonami, writer and curator Eda Cufer, artists Elmgreen and Dragset, and artist Surasi Kusolwong toward discussing the supposed emergence of “a new type of performance-based art that takes its meaning from both the context and the performers.” Bonami, first to speak after Bishop’s dense introduction, made it clear that he wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly when it came to what he took the topic to imply: “Performance in an art fair is boring. I don’t want to see Harold Pinter at the Hauser & Wirth booth.” “I divide the world into pre-boredom and post-boredom,” he continued, unstoppable. “I try to avoid boring things and boring people . . . but I can’t avoid myself!” A little close to the point, he described the death of James Lee Byars: “I think it was a great performance: to die eating a potato. A small potato!”
Elmgreen and Dragset, the duo responsible for the “doubled” Klosterfelde booth at last year’s fair, were more straitlaced, concluding “we have to take this circus seriously and find ways of making it more interesting.” And Cufer was more earnest still, opening with a complex theatrical metaphor that segued into a description of the strategy of “overidentification” that NSK, the Slovenian collective of which she is a member, first developed as a strategy for critiquing the totalitarian regime under which they lived in the '80s. Finally, Kusolwong outlined a historyof Thai performance artthat remains largely unwritten: “We don’t have ‘art history.’ There are maybe three curators.” Questions from the audience (which included a forthright Marina Abramovic, seated front and center) elicited an observation from Elmgreen that the activities of bored dealers and competing collectors on hand at the fair made for performances in their own right, while Cufer insisted that “in order for a performance to be successful, it has to mess with the real world.”
A few hours later, after a full day at Frieze and start-up alternative Zoo, I was more than ready for some real world. Perhaps Claridge’s, arguably London’s poshest hotel, wasn’t the place to find it, but that was my destination, for a dinner hosted by David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, and Maureen Paley. Funnily enough, Bishop had had the same idea, as had performance critic and curator RoseLee Goldberg, who introduced me to artist Francesco Vezzoli. My tablemates included British artist and collector Naglaa Walker and two young critics from New York called, I think, Jerry and Roberta, both of whom were mightily impressed by the fair, London’s museums (“You should see the Velázquez at the National Gallery”), and the city in general.
A chat with White Columns director Matthew Higgs en route to the bar convinced me that I should try to catch the end of the first night of the two-part Frieze Music event at that landmark of metropolitan cheese, the Hippodrome. “Sunn 0))) at the Hippodrome?” he chuckled, incredulous. “How can that not be weird?” Weird it may have been, but by the time I arrived it was also over, so I redirected myself east yet again to Shoreditch club Plastic People, home of dubstep night Forward, for the launch of the debut album by Skream! Once inside, the sheer bass-heavy intensity of the sound, emphasized by the conscious refusal of standard disco lighting, made for the least visual but most striking cultural experience of the weekend.
Left: Gwyneth Paltrow. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Maurizio Cattelan. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)
“Art is in the wallet of the beholder,” said author Kathy Lette on Tuesday evening. “I wish that rich people had a longer attention span. It’s easier for them to look at a painting than read a book; you can’t frame The Satanic Verses.” Just then Salman Rushdie emerged from the posh crowd that had converged on the Duchess Palace to celebrate the opening of Anish Kapoor’s show at Lisson Gallery. When I asked him what he thought of the exhibition, Rushdie reflected: “Anish and I share an interest in the continuing power of myth, and I respond strongly to the sensuality of his forms, particularly his ability to remainwhat?lyrical even when he works on an immense scale.” While the literary master was talking, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a scene taking place over his shoulder: Barbara Gladstone in tears, grappling for the words to describe the overwhelming impact of the work to Kapoor himself. “Oh, oh, oh
. . . it’s divine,” she eventually mustered. A round of bear hugs ensued, while a cynical onlooker commented, “She’s just upset that Lisson is making the money on this one.” Nicholas Logsdail, owner of Lisson Gallery, wrinkled his nose when I shared the venal quip, then, after four seasons of facial expressions, he said grandly: “The show is incredibly moving. It evokes the centerless . . . boundless . . . swirling volume of the cosmos."
The next day at 10:45 AM, I was standing on a long ramp with three hundred or so Very VIPs waiting to gain admittance to the fourth annual Frieze Art Fair. Apparently, the organizers want the fair to be a more serious art event, so they devised a new “tiered” strategy of crowd control: one thousand big spenders welcomed at 11 AM, fifteen hundred members of the press admitted at 1 PM, three to four thousand run-of-the-mill VIPs received at 2 PM, and then finally the onslaught of partygoing “private viewers” permitted at 6:30 PM. I’d bagged a plus-one for 11 AM, so I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of a press pass.
Suddenly, the pack was moving, and once through the white block barriers, the Top One Thousand were zipping about, in and out of booths. When I asked art consultant Andrew Renton about his initial impression of this year’s fair, he said: “It’s bigger, better, stronger, faster, richer. Sorry, can’t talk now.” However, at Frieze, where most of the art on sale has been made since 2000, dealers and collectors of more established art were enjoying leisurely promenades, and in general, the pace felt more relaxed than Basel's.
Left: Artists Idris Khan and Candice Breitz. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Gallerist Victoria Miro. (Photo: David Velasco)
Art stockpiler Alberto Mugrabi was sitting for his portrait in an installation called “Painting for Pleasure and Profit” on the White Cube stand, where Jake and Dinos Chapman would, for £4,500 plus VAT, paint your picture in half an hour. The room was adorned with pub wallpaper, dimly lit with two hanging light bulbs, and hosted by a gallery assistant acting as a receptionist. “You’re at 4 PM with Jake,” she said as if booking a cut and blow-dry. “Isn’t this a lark! You must be able to squeeze me in,” said a tall blonde for whom the painters’ fee was clearly small change. Customers for this quick art-labor exchange seemed happy with the results. Upon seeing his portrait, one subject exclaimed, “It’s the dog’s bollocks!” Dinos nodded in agreement and offered, “Yeah. It’s the mutt’s nuts.”
Just then it started to rain. In fact, it bucketed down, and the torrent was deafening. Dealers looked to the heavens, anxious that leaks might damage their wares, while collectors worried, “It’s like Noah’s ark . . . Maybe we’ll be stuck here forever.” Once the downpour petered out, climate conditions were still a major topic of conversation, as the tent heated up and humidity stayed at 98 percent. “Although it’s called Frieze, it’s a ‘hot’ fairin every sense,” grumbled one sweaty wag.
By this time, I’d found myself in the back-and-beyond of aisles F and Ga mixed neighborhood of younger galleries, many from LA’s Chinatown and London’s Bethnal Green, where I saw party pieces like Untitled (Red White and Blue), 2005, by Ryan McGinley, a photograph whose focal point is a giant, flaccid cock (in the Team Gallery booth), and Hell Mouth, 2006, by Spartacus (aka Lali) Chetwynd, an enormous, roaring gorilla head made out of cardboard boxes (on Herald Street’s stand). Vilma Gold had priced its art in guineas (as part of a conceptual project by artist Michael Stevenson). Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner’s Ur Text, 2006a kinetic sculpture similar to Ergo Ergot, 2006, installed at Tate Britain’s Turner Prize exhibitionwas going for the bargain price of nineteen thousand guineas. In the same hood was the Wrong Gallery. In the corner of their minimal white cube sat a Down syndrome androgyne in front of three objects. The work was jarring; it forced you to shift gears and reflect on the hedonism, superficial beauty, and vacuous velocity of the fair. “The extra chromosome changes your perception of time,” whispered one respectful viewer.
Left: Studio Museum chief curator Thelma Golden. Right: Salman and Milan Rushdie. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)
With that, depression set in, and I ricocheted aimlessly around the stands like a numb pinball. I bumped into a secondary-market dealer who told me, “Prices are out of control. I just bought a large late Warhol painting for the cost of a Neo Rauch work on paper.” To which his friend deadpanned, “But that’s not surprising: Warhol was not from Leipzig.” I bounced off a collector who said, apocalyptically, “The art world is running out of material,” then landed at the feet of a curator who commiserated: “The market is like a sex addict, looking for perversity. The whole idea of something new has become old and crusty.”
After a couple of glasses of champagne and a double espresso, my energy picked up. I grabbed the arm of an old buddy and we went in search of the much-talked-about Mike Nelson installation, which, despite its large scale, was nowhere to be found on the map. As we wandered through its series of photographic darkrooms that stank of developing chemicals, the installation reminded us of the diligent production of art in the midst of this mayhem of consumption. Sometimes, it is not so much what you see as when and where you see it, and in this context, the work, entitled Mirror Infill, acted as a curative balm. It also got me to thinking about how darkness is a luxury at a blindingly bright fair where the works are flashed for maximum wow. In fact, the environment was so bright that one might be able to identify a new, fair-specific version of Seasonal Affective Disordershall we call it FAD?
After the uneven artistic chaos of the tent, it was a relief to be invited to dinner at a collector’s home, which I’d heard was resplendent with “carefully selected ooh-and-aah works.” Down the street from the fair and around the corner from Jay Jopling’s house, the apartment was a bit “like being in Paris with a tiny bit of Park Avenue.” Inside, I found some twenty of the world’s most significant collectors of contemporary artall on their best behavior, respectful of the intimacy of the invitation. One man carefully wiped the mark left by his wineglass off the 1938 Jean Royere coffee table. When I asked our French-born hostess about the logic of her guest list, she explained that it was not about “la crème de la crème, but rather just my friends,” adding that “there is something wonderful about having people in your home who give a damn.” In the drawing room, a Philip Guston self-portrait consisting of a giant bloodshot solitary eye with very small ears (Head, 1975) was a good reflection of our collective condition after such a long day. As I gazed admiringly at Robert Gober’s Tilted Playpen, 1986, which our hosts told us they’d bought over ten years ago, a collector joined me and quipped, “Because of prices, we’re going younger and younger.” I was introduced to Allan Schwartzman, perhaps the only art adviser present, as “the great-white hunter of art consultants” and learned from a self-deprecating collector who’d received “an A from Rosalind Krauss” that there’s “nothing more dangerous than someone with an MA in art history.”
Left: Artist James Rosenquist. Right: Artist Dinos Chapman. (Photos: Sarah Thornton)
The next day, I sauntered into the fair just in time for a fabulous late lunch at the Urban Caprice, then attended Liam Gillick’s talk, “Factories in the Snow,” for what I hoped would be more nourishment. Alarm bells rang early when, in his preamble, the artist confessed that he found his own promotional blurb to be so “slippery” that he couldn’t keep the description “in his head.” He spat out something garbled about taste, then proceeded to list “420 points” generated by a brainstorming session with his students at Columbia. I couldn’t help but wonder whether he hadn’t, at the last minute, decided to do a performancean Andrea Fraser–style parody of a scrambled postmodern ramble. Thought-provoking phrases did pop out of gobbledygook, like “the artist’s ability to be in a whirlpool and not commit to a trajectory,” but he failed to elaborate. Forty minutes into the session, a heckler whined, “How much longer?” Gillick replied, “It’s just an hour. It’s OK. I’m going to be fine. It’s findings. I’ll stop at six. Some things arrest you and some things don’t.” Gillick had offered his talk as a gesture “completely opposed” to the “superdistracted context” of the fair, but his “unedited, disorganized throwing up of cultural stuff” simply echoed the way that art fairs toss up their offerings. Without a narrative or explanatory structure, with next to nothing to hold on to, the talklike the fairwas yet another spectacular exercise in forgetting.
Left: Artist David Weiss and curator Daniel Birnbaum. (Photo: Rolf Marriott) Right: Artist Carsten Höller. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)
Dear Diary, by the time these lines appear, I may no longer be walking among you, as I have promised myself I will overcome my fears and dare formidable slide number four at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
To understand my plight, let’s backtrack to Monday morning, when I climbed aboard the Paris-London Eurostar with British journalists Sean James Rose and Jonathan Wingfield (on their way to interview Demi Moore). I was looking forward to a week stuffed full with art.
From Waterloo station, we headed straight to Tate Modern for the preview of the latest ginormous work in “The Unilever Series,” Carsten Höller’s Test Site, 2006. The installation comprises five nearly vertical slides you enter from different floors and exit as much as 180 feet below. As journalists began popping out at the bottom like flailing rag dolls (the speed of descent is a bit of a surprise), queries tended to run toward safety issues; a German funny lady (and critic) pointed to a bruise on her arm and asked whether it should be considered art.
Höller, as charmingand perverseas he is brilliant, tried to convince me that the slides were no more dangerous than walking down a flight of stairs, and that risk, in any event, is part of our human condition. “There are those who take risks, and such an experience can change their lives. And there are those who just watch, and all of this will look like a Brancusi sculpture.” Apparently Höller felt a bit of trepidation about taking on the commission, but he ultimately took the plunge: “Now I’m afraid I’m bound to be Mr. Slides for the rest of my life.”
Left: Dealer Eva Presenhuber. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley). Right: Peter Fischli and friend. (Photo: Rolf Marriott)
A life-changing experience sounded goodbut maybe later. I was already running behind, so I skipped the slideand lunchand hopped on a Damien Hirst–decorated clipper boat headed for Tate Britain, where Turner Prize curators Gair Boase and Lizzie Carey-Thomas were to lead a little tour. Manning the fort, Phil Collins—a Turner nominee, alongside Tomma Abts, Mark Titchner, and Rebecca Warren—was hard at work on his office within the exhibition; he was interviewing “people who’ve appeared on talk shows, makeover shows, or reality shows who’ve had a negative experience or feel like it's ruined their life.” (For those it may concern, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I made it back from Millbank just in time for the preview of “Flowers & Questions,” the Fischli & Weiss retrospective curated by Tate Modern’s Vincente Todolí with Bice Curiger of Kunsthaus Zürich. What can I say? The show has it all: humor, philosophyand art. The much-loved duo had made the trip from Zurich with families and friends and friends’ families in tow. Tate director Nicholas Serota summed up the mood in his smooth-as-silk toast when he shared an anecdote about a flight full of Fischli & Weiss fans and UBS patrons, as if they were a football team. Even Eva Presenhuber, the artists’ Swiss dealer, declared, when I showed her the picture I’d just snapped, “Unbelievable! I actually look happy!”
At 9 PM, I slipped away quietly to join the sit-down dinner in honor of Höller at Delfina, the restaurant that until recently shared quarters with an artist-residency program. Held by Höller’s three galleriesGagosian, Esther Schipper, and Air de Parisit was clearly the place to be; more than one wag said that the fair itself couldn’t outdo this one! Good to know the best was behind us—and the circus hadn’t even begun.
Left: Artist Pierre Huyghe. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Tate director Nicholas Serota (at right). (Photo: Rolf Marriott)
Flanked by Miuccia Prada, Germano Celant (whom I mistook for Fabrizio Bertelli), and a host of curators, Höller was enjoying the moment. And so was everyone else. Guests were even happy to suffer the interminable wait for the taxis that would ferry them to Volstead, the members-only club where Air de Paris, Matthew Marks, Larry Gagosian, Eva Presenhuber, and Esther Shipper hosted a joint after-party for the two Tate shows. The music was so-so, but the mood made up for it. Who knew the art world could be so happy? I forgot to ask Prada whether the slide Höller had made for her Milan office had changed her life. Now I have no choice: slide number four. I will do it . . . tomorrow.
Left: Parkview International's Vicky Hwang, Serpentine codirector of exhibitions and programs and director of international projects Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Red Mansion's Nicolette Kwok. Right: Artist Josephine Meckseper. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)
National identity was “the new black” in London last week, as local art-world superpowers the Serpentine Gallery and the Saatchi Gallery went head to head with their respective blockbusters, “China Power Station: Part 1” and “USA Today.” First, I set out for Battersea Power Station, a Grade II–listed ruin that sits on the south side of the Thames about a mile upriver from Bankside Power Station (better known as Tate Modern). Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, elegantly accessorized with a flashlight and work boots, took a group of twenty patrons on a tour of the exhibition. We started in the giant cavern of Turbine Hall B, where we listened to a selection of sound works, went through two fabulously dark and dank floors of video projections, and then ascended to the top of the industrial cathedral to find ourselves in a vast room dominated by a Great Wall of apples. Peyton-Jones confessed that she’d taken Chinese elocution lessons in order to pronounce the diphthong-laden names of artists like Jia Zhang-ke, Cao Fei, Pi Li, and Yang Fudong, who were the show’s highlights. Although only a dim-sum sampling of the art, it was an awesome adventure that reminded me of my days researching raves.
After the tour, we convened in the Ito Pavilion for a dinner hosted by Nicolette Kwok’s Red Mansion Foundation. There I talked to Vicky Hwang, whose family plans to transform the thirty-six-acre Battersea site into a hotel, shopping, and leisure complex by 2012. Once seated, I was pulled into the high-speed orbit of curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. We spent much of the evening reveling in Obrist’s mission to “protest against forgetting” with art historian Edward Lucie-Smith, whose Movements in Art Since 1945 was a key resource for Chinese artists in the ’80s because it was the first book about contemporary art widely available in the Communist country. Lucie-Smith treated us to some forty years of tragicomic gossip (about hommes fatals, suicides, artists, and prostitutes)unfit for print but impossible to forget. Later, reminded of the national theme, I asked Obrist, “How Swiss are you?” He responded with a snappy dissertation on multilingualism and urbanism that ended with the charmingly batty disclosure: “I was born in the studio of Fischli & Weiss.”
The next night, I was off to the Saatchi Gallery’s temporary home in the Royal Academy of Arts. There were no paintings in “China Power Station” and no videos in “USA Today.” Much has changed since Saatchi’s “Sensation” show of YBAs took place under the RA’s roof nine years ago. Saatchi is no longer perceived as a collector; his primary identity is now that of an innovative secondary-market dealera symbolic figure who reveals more than anyone else that there are no rules in the art business . . . except that painting sells. Word around the exhibition was that “Charles has made more money out of art than advertising” and that the work in the show was “hit-and-miss but brilliantly packaged.” When I asked one collector whether he didn’t prefer the title “Uncertain States of America,” he responded: “No, it’s too complicated. ‘USA Today’ has the simplicity of 'The World’s Favourite Airline,’ the line Saatchi penned for British Airways.”
After the shaky reception of his last exhibition, “The Triumph of Painting,” Saatchi has returned to his core competenceemergent artby showing thirty-seven young American artists (YAAs, I assume), about twenty of whom had flown in for the opening. I asked several if they felt their work represented America today. Inka Essenhigh said yes with a big smile, then pointed to her paintings and explained, “This one is New York, and that one is Columbus, Ohio.” Kristin Baker said hesitantly, “Sure . . . My work is about spectacle and the fine line between catastrophe and beauty.” French-born dual citizen Jules de Balincourt admitted, “I feel like an American who is permanently a tourist. The show is like the melting pot. That’s the beauty of America.”
The YAAs seem to have a different attitude to commerce. None harbored illusions about the nature of this show. One even joked that it was good to see his work here because he might not see it again until it was up for auction. Another laughed, “Everything is for sale, but Charles seems to be enjoying himself.” As painter Barnaby Furnas admitted, “I think Charles is more up on New York artists than I am . . . which is a bit disconcerting.”
Josephine Meckseper seemed a little shell-shocked that her photograph of a beautiful redhead smoking a match had been plucked for the cover of the sumptuous, large-format “USA Today” catalogue, which bore a striking resemblance to those published by auction houses. About the fire at the RA in August and the Momart blaze that destroyed a portion of Saatchi’s collection two years ago, Meckseper volunteered, “I was a minor pyromaniac as a child. It’s a coincidence. Charles and I both have a history of fire.”
Predictably, Saatchi was absent from his own opening. A few days earlier, I gained access to the exhibition during installation. Builders were still working hard on repairing the water damage caused by the fire, and I eventually found the elusive dealer-curator strutting through his half-hung rooms. “Please don’t think me rude, but there are other people who can talk about the art better than me,” he said preemptively. “Just one question,” I implored. “Do you feel British?” Saatchi let out a deep sigh. “Do I support England when they play Germany? Yes. What else could I feel? I’ve lived here all my life. But those kind of boundaries don’t matter as much as they once did, and nationalism is very bad taste.” I was about to be dismissed, but having snatched a moment, I hazarded a second question: “May I take your photo?” Saatchi looked at me like I was out of my mind, as if I’d asked him to strip naked and dance the cancan. “It would help promote the show,” I ventured. But this only fueled his photo phobia, and he declared with finality, “I don’t care about promoting the art that much!”