ONE OF THE MOST breathtaking works in the Thirteenth Istanbul Biennial, which opened to the public on Saturday, is a black-and-white film that was made more than sixty years ago. The sole mention of it is buried in the back of the biennial guidebook, and it is scheduled to screen only once, on an undisclosed day in October, at 5533, the most remote of the exhibition’s five venues. The only film ever made by Jean Genet, Un Chant d’amour (1950) is a talismanic study of autoerotic longing among a prison population hounded by curious and resentful guards. French censors banned the film as soon as it came to light. The United States Supreme Court deemed it obscene. Jonas Mekas smuggled a print through customs and was promptly arrested when it screened in New York.
Given the biennial’s minimal acknowledgement of the film’s existence, you might think it was still volatile, and rarely seen. But if anything, Un Chant d’amour is simply hiding in plain sight, in Istanbul as elsewhere. Anyone with a decent Internet connection can watch the silent film in its twenty-six-minute entirety, anywhere, anytime, on multiple platforms ranging from YouTube to Vimeo to Ubu. Certainly, Genet’s mesmerizing treatment of dreams, prisons, poetry, sex, violence, desire, repression, and the charged promise of an imminent revolt makes the film a terrific linchpin for the biennial as a whole. More problematically, so too does the impulse to pull back and retreat with the art into smaller and ever more private audiences.
Jean Genet, Un chant d'amour, 1950.
Perhaps more so than any iteration of the biennial to date, this edition—organized by the Turkish curator Fulya Erdemci and titled “Mom, Am I Barbarian?” after a book by the radical poet and Istanbullu eccentric Lale Müldür—is shot through with tensions and contradictions. As Erdemci was assembling her exhibition, an enormous shift in Turkey’s political landscape cracked open the ground on which the biennial had been built, creating wild disparities of ambition and intent. As a result, this edition lurches dramatically between going for broke and playing it safe, between grabbing hold of a pivotal historical moment and standing to the side out of respect, discomfort, or both.
Consider the social confusion of the opening days. On the eve of the press preview, September 10, news broke that a young antigovernment protester named Ahmet Atakan had died in the hospital after being struck by a tear gas canister, which soldiers in the southern city of Antakya had lobbed at his head. Atakan, twenty-two, had been demonstrating against plans to plow a highway through the campus of a school. He was the sixth person killed in protests than have swept across Turkey since May.
The biennial and a slew of other initiatives organizing parallel events swiftly canceled their opening parties. To continue the revelry would have been in poor taste, and anyway, it was a time for returning to the streets. Friends and colleagues talked to me about gas masks and the imperatives of reportage. And yet, on the morning of September 11, day one of the putative preview, I shared a ride from the airport with the curator of a major New York museum. We compared notes. Her schedule was totally unchanged. On that level of elite privilege and institutional obligation, the social itinerary was very much intact, and totally at odds with the realities on the ground.
So began a week of conflicting agendas. There were intimate dinners and exclusive engagements at the opulent homes of Ömer Koç and Füsun Eczacibaşi, representing two of Turkey’s most powerful republican families, without whom the existing infrastructure of Istanbul’s cultural life would likely wither and die. There were lush, epic boat rides up the Bosphorus, a biennial tradition upheld by blue-chip Istanbul galleries such as Rampa and Galeri Mânâ. Another tradition, albeit a young one, was the three-year-old Non-Stage performance program, directed by Derya Demir and Filiz Avunduk. At root and throughout was the humbled and humbling task of trying to make sense of a very complicated biennial, which seems equally bound to and detached from its very complicated context.
Ever since she was appointed to her post in early 2012, Erdemci has made clear that the interests driving her biennial would be the city and the public, and redefining each in relation to the other. In stark contrast to her predecessors, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, who made of their biennial a hermetic museological display, Erdemci wanted the tussle of an open forum, and the challenge of stitching her biennial into the unruly urban fabric of Istanbul.
Within a year, she was in the thick of it, battling for permissions from municipal authorities on one side, trying to convince hardcore political activists that she was for real on the other. A coalition of protesters broke up numerous events for the biennial’s six-month public program, titled “Public Alchemy” and organized with Andrea Phillips, on the grounds that the biennial’s corporate sponsor, Koç Holding, was responsible for gentrifying the same neighborhoods about which the biennial was supposedly concerned.
In a petition that began circulating in May, representatives of the Common Resistance Platform described the biennial as authoritarian, judgmental, and uncommunicative, and called for its umbrella organization, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV), to rethink its structure. Several well-known artists signed, including Banu Cennetoğlu, Nilbar Güreş, and Ahmet Öğüt.
Then, something incredible happened. Demonstrations against the policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) erupted all over the country, and remained nonviolent in the face of a severe police crackdown. What set those events in motion was the protection of Gezi Park, one of the seven public sites Erdemci had lined up for the biennial (the others were Taksim Square, the Galata Bridge, the main streets running through the neighborhoods of Tarlabaşi and Karaköy, the post office, and the dockyards). But clearly, what has come to be shorthanded since as “Gezi,” much like “Tahrir” in Cairo, has wholly surpassed the biennial, and Istanbul’s art scene with it.
To ask what the role of contemporary art can or could be at such a time or in such a movement is a question that goes far beyond the biennial’s reach. And so, in the months that followed the uprisings in May, the biennial began to withdraw. Projects slated for public space—fourteen in all—were canceled or reconfigured for five indoor venues: Antrepo No. 3, Arter, SALT Beyoğlu, a Greek school in Karaköy, and 5533. In August, Erdemci and Phillips scrapped the rest of the “Public Alchemy” program.
Left: Artist Rossella Biscotti with Mari Spirito of Protocinema. Right: Delfina Foundation founder Delfina Entrecanales with artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu and Witte de With director Defne Ayas
On Wednesday evening, I dropped in to see Vasif Kortun, the director of research and programs at SALT. He had opened a major retrospective for Gülsün Karamustafa the night before, but he had canned the party and gone to Taksim Square instead. Having organized two previous editions of the biennial, he seemed well placed to consider the Gezi effect on the art scene.
“This is the first nontraumatized generation in our history,” Kortun said of the young protesters who led the Gezi movement. They weren’t defeated by the coups that shook Turkey’s political establishment in the 1970s. They didn’t have their hopes dashed by the economic privatization that followed. They haven’t been demoralized by what amounts to a civil war in the east of the country. “They didn’t need to learn anything from that,” he said. “We are their baggage. We hold them back.” Throughout Gezi and after, “they created something new.” Or, as he posted on Facebook in early June: “We saw heaven and it was in the present. Self-organized in near-perfect harmony an unscripted future lies ahead of us. We used to feel so alone, disenchanted by our acquiescent attendance to a world that looked so unavoidable. Look who is lonely now?”
“Something unimaginable happened in Turkey, and that’s why we can’t talk about anything else,” explained the writer and curator Övül Durmuşoğlu, who I ran into Thursday night, at a slightly paradoxical roof party for Non-Stage. Gezi pieced together a patchwork of “impossible identities,” she said. “The LGBT community, football supporters, women, students, ultra-nationalists, religious fundamentalists who don’t believe in capitalism. They were all together and this is what scared the government so much.” Erdoğan called the protesters çapulcu, meaning “looters” or “bandits.” The art scene stepped up and owned the term immediately, imagining itself an awkward band of fragile, tender bandits, but bandits nonetheless.
Left: Aaron Cesar of the Delfina Foundation with curator Ozge Ersoy of collectorspace. Right: Curator Juana Berrio with Liverpool Biennial cocurators Anthony Huberman and Mai Abu ElDahab.
Erdemci doesn’t want to bandwagon the term, she told me when I sat down with her Friday afternoon, in the café of Istanbul Modern, and so she doesn’t use the word çapulcu, not in conversation and not in the emotive text she wrote for the biennial. But it might be the key. And it might be through the guise of that fragile bandit figure that many of the contradictions of the exhibition begin to make sense and bear fruit.
For example, a certain renegade spirit runs through the gorgeous simplicity of Annika Eriksson’s video I Am the Dog That Was Always Here (2013), a story of urban upheaval in Istanbul as seen through the eyes of stray dogs, and extends to Hito Steyerl’s heroic lecture-performance Is a Museum a Battlefield? (2013), which finds the artist playing the part of an amateur weapons inspector, untangling the knotted complicities that exist among museums, biennials, corporate sponsors, and the arms industry. Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s The Incidental Insurgents (2012–13), adapting Roberto Bolańo’s novel The Savage Detectives to what looks like an exploded film treatment, likewise celebrates “the lean young wolves” who have historically energized the avant-garde through art, poetry, and film. Like Genet’s prisoners and petty thieves, these characters share obvious affinities with “the outcasts, misfits, bandits, anarchists, revolutionaries, and artists” who Erdemci describes as her raison d’ętre, “the barbarians” of her title, “who open the seams of the system and show the outer limits of language.”
“I don’t want to legitimize the authorities who have silenced citizens’ voices, violently so, to realize a series of artworks,” Erdemci said, finally, of her decision to withdraw from public space. “My gesture of withdrawal shows this conflict clearly. By their absence I want people to hear the voices of the street.”
Left: Curator Lara Khaldi with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver. Right: Artist Trevor Paglen with writer and curator Adam Kleinman.
And yet, that might not be good enough. As the preview days ended, I caught up with Ahmet Öğüt, who was still working through his own response to the biennial’s retreat. To do so, he recounted three anecdotes for me: In Tunis, Michel Foucault hides a printer in his garden for students to produce antigovernment leaflets in 1968; two years ago in Cairo, the Townhouse Gallery bags its exhibition program and opens every room for protesters who need a place to meet and plan; in Istanbul last spring, a hotel on Taksim Square turns its lobby into a makeshift hospital and a base of political action.
“It is important to imagine,” said Öğüt. “If we lose public and semipublic space, we lose everything. Artists give up their authorship when necesary, and it is the same for institutions. We need to find ways to get out of the art context, especially during historical moments like this. I don’t just mean anonymous, guerrilla-style projects. Artists often take those risks, step out of safe zones, and play around with permissions, regulations, and legal limitations. It’s time for the institutions to do the same, and to get more creative.”
Left: A diarist in Elmgreen & Dragset's Istanbul Diaries. Right: Artist Ahmet Öğüt.
A FOUR-HOUR FERRY RIDE up past the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are a true anomaly, a polar archipelago with a California climate, an effect of the warm Gulf Stream waters. At 68ş North, the landscape is Sublime, from the craggy, cloud-shrouded cliffs of the fjords to the white sandy beaches edging aquamarine bays. Home to Norwegian painter Gunnar Berg and muse to Edgar Allan Poe and William Carlos Williams alike, Lofoten eludes description. Almost. “It’s like my Windows 95 backdrop,” one artist marveled. “Cold Hawaii,” suggested another.
Previously a mostly local affair, the eighth edition of the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF) is its most ambitious yet, recruiting curators Anne Szefer Karlsen, Bassam El Baroni, and Eva González-Sancho to the neighboring towns of Svolvćr and Kabelvĺg. Their collaborative exhibition, “Just what is it that makes today so familiar, so uneasy?,” offers a contemporary update of Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing? Hamilton’s work sang the sweet song of capitalism, while remaining skeptical of middle-class desires (e.g., canned ham for the masses). Szefer Karlsen, Baroni, and González-Sancho’s fresh take tracks a moment when crisis has become our permanent condition, and the only certainty is uncertainty. Et in Arcadia…
The day before the official opening, thick slices of cake were served up on the tiny island of Skrova, a former whaling boomtown (the bench in the square is designated for “Millionaires” only) that transitioned to salmon farming as the worldwide demand for whale plummeted. Following the short ferry ride, artists and onlookers gathered in the island’s recreation center, which is impressively outfitted considering that Skrova’s current population hovers around 190 total inhabitants. All 190 must have been in attendance for the extravagant all-you-can-eat, fifty-kronen cake buffet. “This is the most delicious cake I have ever had in my whole life,” artist Pedro Gómez-Egańa moaned, after sampling a pecan-crusted variant. “Seriously, if this whole trip had just been for this mouthful, it would have all been worth it.”
Left: Writer Adam Kleinman in Svolvaer. Right: Artist Pedro Gómez-Egańa.
We tore ourselves away from the feast and took our sugar highs to the theater room for a screening of a trailer for Nana Oforiatta-Ayim’s ebullient Jubilee, which explores the budding friendship between Ghana and Norway after the former’s discovery of vast oil reserves off its coast. Oforiatta-Ayim decided to film in Skrova after a chance meeting with a local fisherman who had recently visited the African country. “It’s such a pleasure to be able to screen it here first,” she beamed. “Though please remember, it’s a work in process.” Unfazed, the audience warmly applauded as a slim Ghanaian fishing boat slid superimposed into the waters of the Norwegian sea.
On Friday, the sun peeked out early in the morning, just in time for our tour of the sites. We started on the island of Svinřya, where Gómez-Egańa had transformed a wooden fishing shed into The Maelstrom Observatory, a kind of object theater based on Poe’s Lofoten-themed short story. Up the road, we passed the open garage of local artist Anne Grethe, whose abundant craft supplies (among them several Tupperware bins of yellow Legos, leftovers from Kjersti G. Andvig’s eighteen-foot self-portrait fashioned for a past LIAF) were joined by a hyperrealistic sculpture of artist István Csákány, caught in the instant when his chair collapses beneath him.
Left: Writer Filipa Ramos. Right: Artist HC Gilje. (Photo: Mahmoud Khaled)
Continuing down the pathways strewn with bits of cod, we made our way to the tip of the island, home to a defunct fish factory and the adjoining American Car Club of Norway, a former hangout for US car enthusiasts. In the dark, damp space, HC Gilje had strung a simple lattice of LED tubes, which sent light zipping around the room at uneven intervals. “It looks like Blade Runner in there,” one writer whistled. We stepped back onto a dock, where I had a clear vantage on Lawrence Weiner’s 1998 work WATER MADE IT WET. Or rather, his former work: “His works cease to exist when the show’s over,” a curator informed us. Not so with Elmgreen & Dragset’s contribution to the 2004 LIAF, a bronze replica of a plastic lunch cooler, perched on the dock in Svolvćr. The sculpture was bolted to the planks after locals persisted in tossing it into the sea below. “How did they move it?” I asked Ingar Dragset later. He shrugged. “It’s not so hard when you’re determined.”
This year’s LIAF mobilized several of Svolvćr’s public spaces, including the library, a discount shopping center, and one of the two new sleek hotels flanking the docks. “I wanted an absolute nowhere, as nondescript and unremarkable as possible,” explained artist Lisa Tan about her choice to show her new film Notes from Underground in a black box parked in the garage of the Thon Hotel. Ann Böttcher opted to grapple directly with the town and its demons—more specifically, the ghosts of its Gestapo past, as preserved in Svolvćr’s Lofoten War Museum. The institution is a labor of love by local legend William Hakvaag, who made a name for himself performing in early-1970s bands like the Beat Cods before he turned to collecting. He has since amassed an astounding assortment of Nazi-related propaganda, including what are rumored to be some of Adolf Hitler’s last drawings (faithfully rendered portraits of Disney’s Seven Dwarves, with a Pinocchio thrown in for good measure). Hakvaag approached me as I was taking in the display of Gestapo marionettes. “It’s so important to remember these were people, too. If we just say they were monsters, then we cannot learn from our history.” He paused. “Did you see Eva Braun’s clutch?”
From there it was on to Kabelvĺg, where several of the artists had taken over the private house of Per Pedersen, a town favorite and an ardent supporter of the arts. (During the installation, one of the artists had discovered an old photo depicting the patron au naturel, one hand clasped around the spine of a human skeleton. Apparently the image had been exhibited as an artwork.) Due to space constraints, the opening festivities were planned for the town square, where David Horvitz would be serving up Stone Soup. The performance riffed on the folk tale of two tricksters who con their way into a meal by promising to make the world’s most delicious soup from a stone. As we would find out, the Norwegian version of the tale uses a nail, which resulted in some delightful confusion from Kabelvĺg-ers, who wondered how eating stones could be advisable. It turns out the stones weren’t all they had to worry about: “You do realize there’s an entire garlic bulb in here?” curator Filipa Ramos laughed, scooping the offending flavoring out of the pot.
A sudden storm pushed everyone inside, jump-starting the evening’s program of what one organizer sweetly referred to as “melancholy jazz and rock ’n’ roll.” A supremely talented pianist (the son of a Norwegian jazz legend, I was told) entertained the crowd for an hour or so before ceding the stage to a noise band, a howling, clanging, wailing mess fronted by a nymph someone recognized from Vilnius and an art student most of us recognized as the guy who had been walking around Kabelvĺg with a giant hunting knife strapped to his belt. At the conclusion of the set, the latter used his best Gwar voice to introduce the band as “the cocoon of nihilism”: “God is not dead, he never existed. We are not dead, we never existed. We did not play for the audience, we played for the universe.” They paused for applause. “Does it smell like waffles?” someone at the next table asked. It did.
By Saturday, the rain had passed, and the skies were a startling blue, the perfect day for surfing, feeding sea eagles, or tracking down the elusive Dan Graham rumored to be refracting in the hills somewhere. And yet, there we were, a feisty crowd filing into the conference room of the Thon Hotel for LIAF’s one-day symposium covering four key themes: Estrangement, Sleep, Stagnation, and Transition. As Aaron Levy embarked on “the long history of people feeling strange,” I flipped absentmindedly through the catalogue. It was decorated with a collection of statements generated by feeding the biennial’s title through Amazon’s crowd-sourced word-substitution program, Mechanical Turk. The last read: “Today will be sunny, even with clouds.” That sounded about right.
Left: David Horvitz's Stone Soup. Right: Artists Nana Oforiatta Ayim and Gert-Jan Zeestraten.
LIGHT AND EASY, the sixth annual Brussels Art Days—three days of openings, dinners, performances, and parties kicking off the Belgian art season—provided a smooth transition from les grandes vacances as collectors, artists, and dealers alike exchanged espadrilles for leather, python, and crocodile footwear. The first day’s temperatures reached upward of eighty-six degrees as galleries opened up their spaces (and champagne) to welcome and work that miraculous creature known, as one local artist put it, as “the legendary Belgian collector.”
Our journey began at the preview of Petrit Halilaj’s show at the Wiels Centre for Contemporary Art, a surreal menagerie of taxidermic specimens from the Natural Museum of Kosovo, reconstructed out of dirt, hay, and excrement. Everyone was in high spirits, though one dealer admitted he’d just had to call off his dinner. “Someone stole all of our guests!” he blurted out, as a manurial calf, precariously balanced on four rods, stared down at us with a quizzical expression.
Thankfully, everyone seemed to have a place to go, and soon I met up with the golden caged captives at Xavier Hufkens Gallery’s much anticipated dinner for Danh Vō and Tim Rollins & K.O.S. Hosted at Le Châlet de la Foręt, one of Brussels’s two-star Michelin restaurants, the lush setting provided irresistible refuge from the sweltering heat that had enveloped the day’s previews. One collector donned a bright blue Australian necktie cooler, while Xavier and the more conventionally suited Hufkens team abandoned jackets and formality for a breezier feel. Champagne and aperitifs were served on the terrace, as guests arrived in pairs. French-American collector Charles Riva, one of the more flamboyant invités, made his entrance in a gray matte SLS with Russian model Olga Elnikova, while on the more filial spectrum, Vō entered accompanied by his father, Phung.
Left: Dealer Xavier Hufkens and artist Tim Rollins. Right: Curator Elena Filipovic and Kunsthalle Basel chairman Martin Hatebur.
“My father and I have more of a working relationship,” Danh told me after dinner, donning a cool white T-shirt and smoking a cigarette. For the show, Phung Vō had engraved THE RECTUM IS A MOLD onto a traditional wooden Nigerian chair purchased at a flea market in town. “Xavier’s been a sort of adoptive father these past three weeks,” said Danh, at that moment flanked by a group of the gallery’s employees. Blood ties or not, a certain familial openness suffused the air as collectors, artists, and Hufkens’s dealers chummed over coffee, dessert, and cigarettes.
“Peter was kind enough to sponsor one of my first works,” Danh informed a crowd, softly laying his hand on the shoulder of Swiss collector Peter Handschin. “Although it’s a shame he was so cheap.”
“I would have been even cheaper if I had known how you really are,” Peter retorted, returning the gesture ever so delicately, to Danh’s and the surrounding group’s amusement.
Later on, I got schooled by Tim Rollins on life and music back in the day. “Hip-hop was originally about elevation,” he stressed, using both hands to lift up the imaginary ceiling over our heads and reminding us that we could all get a little higher. Soon, music—or rather its absence—was on all of our minds. “I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean,” Maureen Paley confessed to Angel Abreu and Rick Savinon of K.O.S. While others solicited for an afterparty at a more boisterous location, most called it a night and began to cluster together for a free ride home.
Left: Dealer Isabella Bortolozzi and collector Mimi Dusselier. Right: Dealers Maureen Paley, Brian Marks, and Markus Rischgasser.
The next evening, a smaller group of guests gathered at Gladstone Gallery for champagne and a private dinner to celebrate a new series of sculptures and paintings by Swiss artist Claudia Comte. Named the “Cocktail Paintings”—each work titled after different concoctions from her favorite mixology bar in Berlin—their bright, intoxicating colors had some wondering where the stronger liquor was hiding. “I wanted cocktails! I should have asked for them,” said Comte, wearing a bright, multicolored minidress and holding an empty wineglass.
The Gladstone dinner was scheduled on the same night as the official ceremony for all the galleries participating in the Art Days, providing respite for guests who preferred a quieter, more discreet evening. “The official dinner is for people who didn’t get invited to a private dinner,” explained one collector. Those who’d made it to Gladstone were certainly on the chicer side of the Belgium art scene: Collectors Mimi Dusselier and Isolde Pringiers chatted agreeably, and there was Sylvie Winckler with Herman Daled, who sold his collection of Conceptual artworks on paper to MoMA last year.
“Barbara texted saying how much she wished she could be here,” Gladstone director Gael Diercxsens informed the group—BlackBerry in one hand, the gallery’s landline in another—as we all admired the splendid arrangement of the table. “This space was really a dream of hers. It’s so easy in Brussels. You can have a cab in five minutes; you can go where you want; delivery is easy. It’s not like in Paris when someone calls the police because a truck is parked out front to unload artworks.”
In spite of the dreamlike setting, we left after the first course to check out what was happening at the more inclusive event of the evening. “One has to give it to Barbara for hosting two dinners on the same night in absentia,” my friend said as we slipped into Gladstone’s other table at the official Art Days banquet, held at Le Cirque Royal, Brussel’s only permanent circus. (Think a medium-size concert hall.) Guests were clad in everything from denim to linen. Candles illuminated the entire foyer, while Billie Holiday’s voice filled the auditorium with a soft and intoxicating ease; but what the setting lacked in intimacy it made up for in conviviality.
“This is the first time in history that the older generations must learn from the younger,” preached my seasoned neighbor as we chatted about art and technology. Shortly after, guests young and old clamored onstage to snap photographs of dealer Albert Baronian and his wife, Françoise, who will later this year celebrate four decades since the opening of their gallery. “Theirs is one of the oldest, most important institutions in Brussels,” dealer Sébastien Ricou told me. As a present, he had given the couple replicas of the T-shirts that they wore at the gallery’s opening in 1973.
The night was replete with flashbacks as more ambitious partygoers met up again at local artists’ bar Midpoint, where an enthusiastic crowd could be seen drinking and smoking with gusto. A vivacious drag queen played electro and house, while the watering hole, overflowing with Brussels art-world personalities, spilled out into the streets. Music and dancing continued well past 3 AM, weary patrons leaned outside on parked cars, and for a moment it felt like summer was only just beginning.
The next evening, an hour’s drive from the city brought me to the Museum Dhondt-Dhaenen’s annual Tuinfeest (“garden party”) and auction hosted by Christie’s, where the fresh, bucolic air and bar tops covered with cocktails were a tonic for the vagaries of urban life. “We are really in Flanders now,” a Francophone collector told me as the sound of Flemish slowly filled the large white tent housing the works.
There was a light dinner, followed by a general hush while the auction took place. “We are at the playground of Belgium’s richest collectors,” one dealer whispered as works were snatched up like hors d’oeuvres. Sold without reserve, the prices were a steal. Collector Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, sitting at an adjacent table with his wife, Almine Rech, bought an acrylic and mixed-media work on canvas by Art & Language for 7,500 euros, while a glazed ceramic frog, covered in handmade pink lace by Joana Vasconcelos—the most expensive piece of the evening—went for 14,000 euros.
After the evening’s salutary sales, those whose appetites for excitement weren’t fulfilled drove back into the city to celebrate art adviser Vincent Matthu’s birthday at a costume party. Shrouded in a haze of smoke, the dancing continued well into the night, and the elaborate get-ups had some of us wishing that we’d made more of an effort. “There’s such a healthy attitude toward art here,” said artist Peter Scott outside as he rolled a cigarette. “Who needs New York when there’s this kind of energy?” As a cold drizzle of rain began, the more finely plumaged guests retreated to the dance floor for shelter. The rest of us remained outside, enlivened and intrigued by the first signs of fall.
THE POLYFORUM SIQUEIROS is an absurd, angular structure standing in the shadow of Mexico City’s World Trade Center, in the borough of Benito Juárez. Perched like an eccentric papal hat over a handful of cheap cafes and restaurants, the building breaks up the otherwise endless Avenida de los Insurgentes, said to be the longest street in all of the Americas, which cuts a line like a scar, north to south, through this heaving, hurling megacity of more than twenty million people.
The Polyforum was the last, most ludicrous project by the late Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who set out to make the largest mural in the world—La marcha de la humanidad (The March of Humanity)—a history of his country’s struggles in bombastic bas-relief. A few weeks ago, I found myself turning my back on one of the world’s most captivating and chaotic cities to spend three days inside the Polyforum. It was like crawling into a corner of Siqueiros’s brain and hiding out in his ego.
It also seemed ridiculous. Outside this garish and ungainly artwork, there was a world to change. The city was rumbling toward September with a series of political showdowns in mind. A band of anarchic teachers from the south of the country were on strike in Mexico City: blocking roads, shutting down the airport, barricading the end-all, be-all of public squares (the Zócalo), and forcing the president (Enrique Peńa Nieto) to retreat from a high-profile speech. But slugging it out in a place apart—in the space of an overblown painting the size of a building—was exactly what several hundred enthusiasts of contemporary art theory chose to do in their last days of summer. Welcome to SITAC, numero once, themed along the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “being-with-one-another,” or, more poetically in this context, “estar los unos con los otros.”
Left: Fundación Colección Jumex director Patrick Charpenel with curators Marco Granados and Lucia Sanroman. Right: Artist and filmmaker Rafael Ortega.
Mexico City’s Simposio Internacional de Teoría sobre Arte Contemporáneo is one of those famed public forums whose reputation for urgent, timely discourse on topics of art, politics, and history reverberates all over the world. Supported since 2000 by a local organization of professionals and philanthropists known as PAC (Patronato de Arte Contemporáneo), and building on a curious prehistory as the prototypical talks program for an art fair in Guadalajara, the annual event has drawn together an impressive international lineup of tough-minded artists, writers, and curators over the past decade.
Their purpose? To debate, expand, and explode such fields and concepts as resistance (Issa Benitez’s SITAC III, in 2004), catastrophe (Eduardo Aboroa’s SITAC IX in 2011), feminism (Gabriela Rangel’s SITAC VIII, in 2010), the south (Cuauhtémoc Medina’s SITAC VII, in 2009), performance in relation to art history and its institutions (Pablo Helguera’s SITAC IV, in 2005), and the future itself (from the Raqs Media Collective, Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s SITAC X, last year). Woven around and between each edition are the rumored and probably apocryphal stories of artists electrifying audiences, of crowds booing speakers offstage, of rude exchanges, angry outbursts, a scandalous striptease, and withering insults slung like mud among colleagues.
“In Mexico there’s an enormous hunger for this kind of theoretical artistic exchange,” said Helguera, who sits on SITAC’s advisory board. “There are more avenues for it now, but they didn’t exist before.” Given the rough-and-tumble lineage, this year’s proceedings were exceeding, almost disturbingly polite (the audience numbers were also way down, due to an exceptional calendar shuffle, which dislodged the symposium from its usual home in January). It started, however, with a deep sense of unease. After packing into the Polyforum, I thought I had been stricken by illness (immaculate hangover? disorienting hunger? phantom heartbreak?) until I realized that slowly, inexorably, the room really had begun to spin. Such is the Siqueiros shtick. The room rotates, a light show kicks in, and the artist’s voice grumbles onto the PA system to explain the paintings, in case you missed their point. In this case, it was a carnival ride for the Conceptual art set.
Left: Artist Emanuela Ascari with SITAC advisors Pablo Helguera and Sofía Olascoaga. Right: Dealers Monica Manzutto and Jose Kuri of kurimanzutto.
After that prelude, Paola Santoscoy, from Mexico City, and Marcio Harum, from Săo Paulo, directed the symposium with amiable, low-key aplomb. Extracting a constellation of ideas about individuality, collectivity, and conviviality from Nancy’s The Inoperative Community and Being Singular Plural, they enriched them further by adding lodestars such as Occupy, the Arab Spring, Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests, and the “Yo Soy 132” student movement in Mexico, which came into being sixteen months ago as demonstrations against Peńa Nieto’s presidency.
Nancy himself does not travel, so his presence was smuggled in through excerpts in a four-volume reader, and interview footage shot at his home in Alsace. “Being in Mexico, we have to talk about the news,” Nancy said, wondering out loud about where to find the essence, effervescence, and friction that were rumored to exist in the streets of the city so often deemed delirious, addicted to risk, obsessed with death, and described, rambunctiously, by William S. Burroughs as “sinister and gloomy and chaotic, with the special chaos of a dream.”
Past editions of SITAC have struck a better balance among the art world’s various actors—with artists such as Doris Salcedo, Antoni Muntadas, Thomas Hirschhorn, Tania Bruguera, Marina Abramović, Shirin Neshat, Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Trevor Paglen, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Tino Sehgal holding their own against the likes of Hal Foster, Manuel De Landa, Sarat Maharaj, and Irit Rogoff. This time, the symposium was completely overrun with the twenty-first century’s young, upwardly mobile curator class. At worst, this meant the graduates of curatorial studies programs running through notes for the exhibitions they’d made, peppering their talk with a million tiny mentions of the “potentiality” of a thing.
Left: Curator and editor of the SITAC XI reader Monica Amieva with curator David Miranda of the SITAC XI education program. Right: Critic, curator, and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik.
“I blame Bard,” said an exasperated artist, grousing in the break between sessions. To be fair, the most boring and the most brilliant of all the talks were by alumnae of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, an easy target for anyone’s ire against excessive discursivity (this was a crowd that used “you’re an epistemological impossibility” as the gentlest of insults). But overall, the rigor of historical research and the punch of real storytelling were beyond the capabilities of at least half the speakers, a fact further complicated by a total lack of timekeeping and moderating.
This made the highlights all the more bright and shining, beyond the incidental pleasures of listening to the psychoanalyst Suey Rolnik, a phenomenon unto herself, singing Brazilian love songs, lullaby style, in a van rolling slowly through Mexico City’s legendary traffic; or hearing the ever affable Helguera, an artist who also runs MoMA’s public education programs, talk about the literary history of Latin America, the role of novelists and poets in the development of the region’s art criticism, and the peculiar inability of the always looming Octavio Paz to take any interest whatsoever in Conceptual art; or digging for information from Coleccíon Jumex director Patrick Charpenel on the opening of the new Museo Jumex in November, with a slate of exhibitions ranging in subject from James Lee Byars to Damien Ortega; or following the inimitable logic of the curator Cuauhtémoc Medina, another force of wonder, as he divided the world, with absolute certainty, into Trotskyites and Stalinist agents, and then, for fun, rubbed salt in the wound of the local art scene’s by-now-almost-comical split between the camps of Francis Al˙s and Gabriel Orozco.
If the symposium was missing an element of equilibrium, and fundamentally suffered the participation of too few artists (the most tender and performative was Fernando Palma), then the so-called social agenda was almost ruthlessly strategic in its distribution of events: a gallery dinner (kurimanzutto) at the end of day one, a gathering at the home of a collector (Boris Hirmas) at the end of day two, and lunch at a museum (MUAC, the Museo Unversitario Arte Contemporaneo) followed by browsing time (best spent in Miguel Lopez’s marvelous incision into the permanent collection, called “Altered Pulse”) at the end of day three.
Left: Artist and PAC board member Ery Camara. Right: Curators Candice Hopkins and Janet Dees of SITE Santa Fe.
In a panel on collectivity, Alhena Katsof of Public Movement offered dazzling insights into the workings of the shape-shifting Israeli artists group. “Politics exist within our bodies,” she said, “often as dormant knowledge. We’re looking for a way to seal the politics within the action,” a process she likened to “the physical education of becoming a citizen.”
In another panel on language and identity, the curator Candice Hopkins, part of SITE Santa Fe’s new team, zigzagged through an incredible episode in the history of the Klondike gold rush, in which a forgotten festival, the Golden Potlach, created a gender-bending, border-crossing fusion of Native American and European cultures from the desires, obsessions, and illnesses of ramped-up early capitalism.
Mario Bellatín, a Mexican-Peruvian novelist with a cult following who often disorients his audience by cracking jokes about his missing arm (at SITAC, he showed off a tool he uses to manipulate his iPhone, a necessary diversion in the darkness of the Polyforum), gave the most confounding talk of the symposium, totally in character, shrouded in a literary jest, about a “ghost book” no one would publish. “He is a true avant-gardist,” a curator told me. “He might not be the next Roberto Bolańo, but he might be close, and a few years from now, you might find yourself saying, ‘I heard him speak once in Mexico City.’ ”
Left: PAC board members Aimee de Servitje and Patricia Sloane. Right: Artist and architect Tony Chakar.
Speaking of Bolańo, the Turkish curator Övül Durmuşoğlu plucked a choice quote about “super lucidity” from the late Chilean writer’s masterful novel The Savage Detectives as a means of working through the fragility, romance, euphoria, and fear that had been unleashed by the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Would the sharpness and clarity of those emotions be enough to form and sustain a political movement capable of reinventing democracy in our time? To her great credit, Durmuşoğlu expressed high hopes and a modest will.
In two similar veins, the Beirut-based artist and architect Tony Chakar gave an abbreviated version of his lecture-performance “The Space of Nün,” which uses the story of a grandmother distributing mangoes to soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a pretext to explore the potential for radical politics in conveying the many different meanings of love through ritual. Helena Chávez MacGregor, meanwhile, presented a powerful text on apparitions, and the relationship between artistic practice and the space of political action, using the Mexico City protests of 2012 as the spine of her essay. “In the summer of 2012, I appeared with others,” she said. “It was an instant, a community of desire, of dancing in spite of everything. What is at stake is not the invention of a new political model but a change in our understanding of what politics means.”
It wasn’t always clear whether the organizers of SITAC XI were serious in their stated intention to build a living, breathing community in the space of the Polyforum. What emerged without question, however, was a kind of twinned, tensile dream. On one hand was the desire, born of political despair, to appear as a subject, to become visible in a space of protest, to claim a voice, agency. On the other hand was a more delicate, less articulate desire to hold onto and protect some kind of inscrutability for art, to leave it half-hidden, only partially seen, and to allow it the space of silence. That last part came through the final talk, a left-field lecture by the philosopher Vladimir Safatle on the late style of Beethoven, as filtered through the writings of Adorno and Edward Said. An exercise in close listening, it was tonic for the room, and a solace inside the Siqueiros.
Left: Artist Melanie Smith. Right: Critic, curator, and PAC board member Osvaldo Sanchez with artist and writer Yishai Jusidman.
Left: Urs Fischer’s Yurt at the NYC section of Station to Station. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation) Right: Artist Doug Aitken (center). (Photo: Station to Station)
“WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?” asked the cabbie as he dropped me off at a usually desolate Williamsburg street corner on a recent Friday evening that was now bustling with Fashion Week escapees. A reasonable question, but one without a straightforward answer. “Uh, an art-and-music thing?” I replied, hopefully, to his understandable bemusement. The official description of “Station to Station,” which had set up temporary shop at Kent Avenue’s Riverfront Studios, felt somehow too high-flown to convey in a nutshell: “A nomadic ‘Happening’ on a train that visits cities, towns and remote locations. A moving platform for artistic experimentation, Station to Station is an artist-created project that embraces constantly changing stories, unexpected encounters and creative collisions between artists, musicians and creative pioneers.” Exactly.
Organized by Doug Aitken, Station to Station’s coast-to-coast tour is scheduled to stop at nine different locations over the course of the month. A fund-raiser for “non-traditional programming” at various partner institutions, it’s also a marketing opportunity for a certain well-known brand of jeans. “Are you from Levi’s Europe?” a Marnie-from-Girls lookalike asked me at the press desk. Being from the continent, but not from the manufacturer, I was redirected. Once in, someone pressed a slip of paper into my hand that I assumed was a drink ticket but which turned out, disappointingly, to be a suggested Twitter hashtag. Already performing in the parking lot were the Kansas City Marching Cobras, a marching band that did their synchronized thing with irrepressible gusto. A general atmosphere of hype suffused the place; there were more cameras per square foot here than at any event I’ve attended recently, all snapping away at anything novel or proximate.
Left: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti performs at Station to Station. (Photo: Brian Doyle, courtesy of 303 Gallery) Right: Kansas City Marching Cobras at Station to Station. (Photo: Ye Rin Mok, courtesy of Station to Station)
Scanning the crowd for familiar faces, I clocked MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey striding somewhere purposefully; ditto, in another direction, 303 Gallery director Cristian Alexa. “Social practice” wallah Claire Bishop and Parkett US senior editor Nikki Columbus rolled up carrying yellow plastic discs, components of Carsten Höller’s Ball and Frisbee House. Informed that bands including Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti would be playing later on, Bishop grumbled, “Who are they? I hate live music.” Columbus was at least prepared to stick it out, alongside the dozens of mostly youngish art-music-fashion partisans.
“Oh come on, it’s Ernesto Neto, it’ll be worth it!” urged a nearby enthusiast to her friend as she entered one of the cluster of small tents filling the grassy area around which we were milling. These five “Nomadic Sculptures” housed work by Kenneth Anger, Urs Fischer, and Liz Glynn, as well as by the aforementioned Höller and Neto. Most had the air of nonrelaxing chill-out rooms and required one to line up, remove one’s shoes, or cram oneself into a confined space in anticipation of some unspecified reward. In Anger’s enclosure, the filmmaker’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, 1969, Lucifer Rising, 1970–81, and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, 1954, were screened on monitors that surrounded a pentagram-shaped seating arrangement. Nice, though hardly, as the event brochure trumpeted, a “groundbreaking installation” representing “the culmination of the 86-year-old artist’s work.” At least, I hope not.
Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation) Right: The NYC section of Station to Station. (Photo: Brian Doyle, courtesy of 303 Gallery)
Lured inside by the promise of “food curation” by Alice Waters and Leif Hedendal, I found Sub Pop rockers No Age thrashing away on stage and a sort of miniature sweatshop in operation at the back of the hall. This featured individuals producing “new products in real time.” The experience was intimate in the way that Printed Matter’s annual NY Art Book Fair is intimate, which is to say it shoehorned the viewer into such uncomfortable closeness to the artists that any less-than-diplomatic response became completely untenable. (Printed Matter was also part of the event, having contributed a set of artists’ posters that was pasted up in some of the site’s corners.)
A kind of greatest hits of video art program—which included evergreen crowd-pleasers like Fischli/Weiss’s The Way Things Go, 1987, alongside more recent efforts like Nicolas Provost’s Gravity, 2007—filled the gaps between bands until finally, headliners Suicide, whose buzz-saw synth noise was in sharp contrast to the aforementioned Ariel Pink’s gauzy, “hypnagogic” soft rock, brought the loose-knit night to a conclusion. Tottering around the stage cane in hand, vocalist Alan Vega retains an unnerving presence in his seventy-fifth year; I hope he took the rapid thinning of the crowd as a compliment. Kids today…
Left: Kenneth Anger’s installation at Station to Station. (Photo: Mara McKevitt) Right: Suicide performs at Station to Station. (Photo: Alayna Van Dervort, courtesy of LUMA Foundation)
“TO BIENNIAL, OR NOT TO BIENNIAL?” That was the question back at the 2009 Bergen Assembly Conference. That gathering had been convened as a think tank for a city angling to become, as more than one public official assured me, the “most open, daring, creative, and innovative within the Nordic countries by the year 2017.” But as plans came together for a Bergen biennial, doubts starting to rise as to whether a grand-scale exhibition was really the kind of “open, daring, creative and innovative” maneuver the city needed. After all, three decades into a so-called biennial explosion, the term itself has become less a forum for new ideas and more a jet-set shuffle of what curator Inti Guerrero calls “NATO art.” (“You know, actors talking about war.”)
Rather than wade too deeply into critiques of wasted opportunities, the 2009 conference concentrated on what benefits the biennial format still can bring. The resulting Bergen Assembly—“An Initiative for Art and Research,” which debuted the week before last in venues across the city—is a curatorial coup, a triennial that allows ample time for research, writing, and the production of new commissions.
For the Assembly’s inaugural edition, invited curators (they prefer the term “conveners”) Katya Degot and David Riff created “a novel about a novel, written in space.” “Monday Begins on Saturday” is an ode to artistic research that borrows its title and structure from a slim satire written by the Strugatsky Brothers, the Soviet sci-fi masters who also penned Roadside Picnic, the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Published in 1964, at the height of the Cold War–fueled science boom, the tale follows its wayward protagonist through the cabalistic National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWITT). The institute’s researchers—physicists and lyricists alike—are united in the otherwise isolating pursuit of intellectual passions. They are so completely immersed in their quest for knowledge that they willingly forgo their weekends to get in precious additional hours at their desks.
Left: Curator Inti Guerrero. Right: Artist Stephan Dillemuth and Witte de With director Defne Ayas.
It was easy to extend this metaphor to the airport-weary art-worlders pouring into the Assembly press conference on the last Thursday of August. Assorted board members Marieke van Hal, Ute Meta Bauer, Ina Blom, and Ingar Dragset sipped apple juice from champagne flutes amid the crowd of participating artists—“researchers,” here—and curators Joseph Backstein, Anne Szefer Karlsen, and Kaspar König, who was accompanied by Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen. Conversations drifted in and out of Norwegian, Swedish, and German, but the native tongue of the triennial was English with a Russian accent. The Slav-heavy rosterfrom Aleksandr Rodchenko to Dimitri Venkov, a young filmmaker who took home last year’s Kandinsky Prizedidn’t seem to bother the local audience, who greeted the new festival with an enthusiasm reinforced by the unseasonably sunny weather. “I woke up with goosebumps,” bubbled Trude Devland, Bergen’s vivacious mayor, minutes before delivering her welcome speech. The excitement did not wane, even with the arrival of the rain, and a hearty crowd could be found storming the stage at the opening party, where Russian rock icon Psoy Korolenko put on a lively show with the Israeli klezmer band Oy Division. Dmitry Gutov grabbed Degot and spun her into the crowd, while the band pulled Chto Delat?’s Dmitry Vilensky onstage to sing along. It was a Russian invasion, at its very best.
As for other invasions, “Monday Begins on Saturday” mobilized several of the city’s existing art venues (including a number of the KODE museum buildings and gallery spaces like Rom8, Entrée and ∅stre) into a loose network of whimsically named Institutes dedicated to topics like “Political Hallucinations,” “Tropical Fascism,” “Defensive Magic,” and the lyrical “Pines and Prison Bread.” In the same spirit, the “research” conducted within the projects need not be utilitarian, nor, for that matter, factual. Venkov’s film Like the Sun finds the secret ingredient to perfect human existence in a magical yogurt starter, while Kiluanji Kia Henda’s photo series Icarus 13–Journey to the Sun spins the fictional tale of the Angola Space program, and Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Against Death (2009) explores an instance of accidental immortality. In other places, fact starts to resemble fiction, as in Jan Peter Hammer’s potent Tilikum, 2013, a feature-length film that begins with a 2010 incident at Sea World when a trainer was drowned and dismembered by a killer whale (“The whale that…they’re not supposed to be in the water with,” as one employee hestitantly describes it to the 911 dispatch.) From there, Hammer moves on through experiments in behavioral science, sensory deprivation, LSD usage, attempts at interspecies communication, and scientifically sanctioned hand jobs for dolphins. “We do not have to respect his privacy, but we cannot help but respect his happiness!”
Thursday featured a full tour of the institutes, followed by a welcoming dinner at the historic Legens Hus. Over herb-buttered bread and mushroom risotto, two Oslo-based artists, Lars Cuzner and Fadlabi, were discussing the conundrum of putting research on display in an age when laptops are increasingly replacing laboratories. “We kept calling around to secure certain types of equipment, and the suppliers would tell us, ‘You know, it’s much easier to do all this on your computer,’ ” Cuzner grinned. We paused to consider what this kind of exhibition might look like in the future. “Just a room full of laptops,” Blom glumly concluded.
Is the future so grim? In its origins, the Bergen Assembly was specifically assigned to address “The Future,” but this could only be glimpsed here and there, in cynical catalogue contributions from Pavel Pepperstein and Ben Seymour, or the staged interviews of Anton Vidokle and Pelin Tam’s 2084. This left a disproportionate amount of the research oriented toward the recent past. If the Strugatskys had penned their novel during the Soviet science boom, then Degot and Riff are writing theirs in a time when the endless accumulation of knowledge has led us to, as Renata Salecl would claim, “a passion for ignorance.” She illustrated this by recalling an episode of The Simpsons where little Lisa, staggered by the impending doom of climate change, is remedially doped up on a drug called Ignorital.
Salecl gave one of the three keynote addresses in the Bergen Assembly’s accompanying symposium, which was held deep within the hull of the old United Sardine Factory. (“You should have seen them before they unionized,” writer Adam Kleinman joked. “Such crowded conditions.”) In keeping with the title, the symposium kicked off Saturday morning, bringing with it all the ups and downs expected when making one’s intellectual passions public (“But this is all irrelevant, abstract noodling!” a frustrated artist erupted after a panel called “Dialectical Materialism Today?” Riff shrugged in reply: “It’s philosophy.”) The discussion on gentrification got tripped up in its terminology (“You wouldn’t very well say the Wild West was gentrified, would you?” Seymour quipped.) Chto Delat contributer Oxana Timofeeva warned the crowd to drop any Orwellian visions about her talk, “Communism with a Non-human Face.” “I know you are prepared to laugh, but I would ask you to take this quite seriously,” she said, before launching into Hegel’s aversion to amphibians as creatures who do not respect the boundaries of his air/land/sea classification system. “What about rats?” A woman in the front row asked. Momentarily taken aback, Timofeeva asked her to elaborate: “What do you think about rats?” “Oh, I hate rats! I think they’re gross.”
There was a poignant moment in the panel “How Much Socialism?” when Oslo-based artist Ane Hjort Gettu was handed the mike: “Speaking as someone subsidized from cradle to the grave”—“at least I hope,” she added with a smile“perhaps it is no longer the time to attack the welfare state, but rather the time to mourn its passing.” Where else, after all, could these kind of magical institutes come to exist but in a country that prized the pursuit of knowledge enough to fund even its most eccentric expressions?
Each evening, there was always one last bit of magic to be found at the Bergen Kunsthall’s Landmark, a casual bar where the drink tickets—inexplicably labeled “BONG”—were Strugatsky’s unspendable coin made real: No matter how many whiskeys you ordered, somehow a coupon found its way back into your pocket. As the drinks poured forth, so too did the conversations, most of which continued on the threads of the day’s discussions. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the novel where the workers refuse to go home on New Year’s Eve: “These people had come here because they preferred being together to being apart and because they couldn’t stand Sundays of any sort because on Sunday they felt bored. These were Magicians, People with a capital ‘P,’ and their motto was ‘Monday Begins on Saturday.’ ”
Left: Bergen Assembly director Evelyn Holm and Mayor Trude Devland. Right: Artist Ane Hjort Guttu and Bergen Academy of Art and Design's Cecilia Gelin.