Left: Séamus O Ciosain. Right: Galway International Arts Festival director Paul Fahy and playwright Enda Walsh.
WE SAT ON A PINK-FLOWERED COMFORTER atop a single bed, surrounded by a panoply of little-girl kitsch. A disembodied voice told of the room’s former occupant, now disappeared, “inventing tales of Barbie punishing Sylvanian Bunny,” and fearing that “the little world I had created in my bedroom would crack to the beigeness of the rest of the house.” The installation, A Girl’s Bedroom, was Enda Walsh’s follow-up to last year’s Room 303, both of which premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, and both of which offered proof that reality may be most powerful when invented.
“I’m making a room a year until I die,” said artist Enda Walsh when I ran into him at Varvara Shavrova’s opening of “Borders” in the Shed, down on Galway’s docks. Any cheery ones, I wondered, remembering the bleakness of Room 303. “I don’t know, I never do—you’re asking the wrong person,” he said. “I’ll bring them all together one day in a big complex.” He will too. Last year’s festival coup, Ballyturk, a play written and directed by Walsh, is set to tour the world in 2016.
Shavrova’s exhibition is based on films she made on the Chinese side of the border with Russia. “Yes, there were hairy moments and nefarious activities. I almost had my camera taken by the police. I pretended I didn’t speak any Russian.” Vivacious and engaging, Shavrova is, eclectically, from Moscow via Beijing and now lives in Ballycastle, Ireland. We wandered through Galway’s pretty lanes in gorgeous sunshine, fueled with the promise of time-inappropriate cocktails (it was only 4 PM) at the Festival Gallery. Does a raspberry bobbing in a glistening glass of Absolut count as food? Australian artist Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures hover on the brink of creepy and adorable, and you don’t need vodka to be beguiled by her creations.
Artist Jane Queally, gallery manager for the fortnight, was holding Offering, a puppet made from fox and feral possum fur. “It opens up the conversation, though I may get a bit tired of having my hand in there. Patricia talks about yoga, and knowing the body inside and out. It’s starting to feel almost like an extension of me.” People mugged for snaps beside The Lovers, a pair of scooters that have obviously fallen for one another, and The Long Awaited, a small boy nestled against an oddly attractive beast of a creature. It’s a show made for photo opportunities, but as with all openings, the fun has to pause for the speeches.
“Patricia is startling,” said artist Hughie O’Donoghue. He spoke about how it became difficult to distinguish some of the work from the audience. Looking around, I thought that was a little rude to the audience, until Séamus, son of Gallery of Photography director Tanya Kiang, posed beside The Coup, making a pair of adorable redheads, and I began to get his point. O’Donoghue cited Hieronymus Bosch, but the Chapman brothers, Ron Mueck, Duane Hanson, and Dorothy Cross were all mentioned about the place: Not that the work is derivative—it’s all wonderfully its own.
Later, over drinks at Neachtain’s, Galway’s legendary pub, before dinner at Artisan, O’Donoghue reckoned that the festival and its program makes people think about their place in the world. “The art world is in a decadent phase,” he said. I agreed with him, showed the assembled company Victor—a new smartphone app to hail private jets like cabs—and drank more wine.
The next day Piccinini and I met to talk about the nature of love, French feminisms, and how we might come to treat the mutated offspring of the world that we’re changing around us. “Though what we do with that nature is only one layer of the work.” She has expressive brown eyes, thinks before she speaks, and evidently feels a strong affinity for her creature creations. She conjured an uncanny reality in the Galway sunshine. “I spent time in the anatomy lab. Everyone’s insides are as different as their outsides. The cliché that we’re all the same under the skin is simply not true.”
Left: Jen Coppinger and Macnas Director Noeline Kavanagh. Right: Gallery of Photography director Tanya Kiang.
This idea haunted me over the first few days of the festival. There was the premiere of Amy Conroy’s play Luck Just Kissed You Hello: “My skin didn’t fit. What was inside didn’t match what was on the outside,” says the protagonist, Laura, now transgender and named Mark. And then there was Exhibit B, Brett Bailey’s live-art installation that was forced to close at London’s Barbican last year following security concerns over protests.
Bailey and many of the cast were at the festival’s opening party, including Stella Odunlami, an artist and postcolonial studies student who bristled at the idea that the black actors in Exhibit B, which mimics the human zoos of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and tells the story of colonialism’s processes of dehumanization, are exploited. “Fear thieves off misinformation,” she said in her statement at the end of the show, which had left me reeling. Outside someone began to tell me that one’s reaction depended on one’s own postcolonial position, but I wasn’t ready for that. An intellectual response would come later; for now it was emotion.
Down the road, Martin Healy was putting the finishing touches to Terrain at the Galway Arts Centre. Made in white neon, Fata Morgana is a set of coordinates: 83°N 103°W. “Discovered” as a new landmass in the Arctic in 1906, it proved to be a mirage. “I like the idea of setting coordinates to nothing, of folly,” said Healy. His latest video work, Harvest, played upstairs. “I’m making plants speak. We’re in a tenuous position right now in terms of nature.” Oddly, given the difference in the form of their work, he and Piccinini have a great deal in common. Connections like these are part of the magic of festivals, and Galway 2015 has been one of the best.
SUMMER IN NEW YORK CITY, no matter how heavy the weather, performs its possibilities to those who stick it out. The wealthy vanish, at least on the weekends, and the college students go home, or wherever. The tourists somehow stay in their designated areas, and for these few months, for those or other more charitable reasons, the city feels as though it’s got something of its character back.
“Pardon my shtick,” Wayne Koestenbaum grinned to a dozen of us gathered one warm July evening in the East Village for “Marking Marks,” a walk the poet-painter-critic was leading in homage to Frank O’Hara’s 1953 poem “Second Avenue.” We were just a few steps west of 441 East Ninth Street, where O’Hara lived in a second-floor apartment from 1959 to 1963, the years during which he was, according to some, in fullest possession of his poetic powers. “I revere Frank O’Hara,” Koestenbaum explained, “and this might be my favorite of his poems.” Koestenbaum himself is revered as a vigilante on behalf of the glittering intellect. If John Ashbery once described “Second Avenue” as “such a difficult pleasure,” that evening, Koestenbaum praised it as “a poem big enough to contain [O’Hara’s] consciousness and the city’s consciousness as well.”
We were handed sketch pads, water-soluble markers, and pencils, and Koestenbaum explained that this evening’s walk would be punctuated by his prompts. “We will be on the lookout for events,” he said, “responding with linguistic marks or nonlinguistic marks”meaning that our observations or ideas would be expressed within or without their sanctioned symbolic order. “Quantity, not quality,” Koestenbaum insisted. “We are working in the spirit of Frank O’Hara, who was always inspired.” Glancing at the graying sky, he added, “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain,” but thus far only the air conditioners seemed to be spitting on us.
Our first prompt: “Who should be on this street with us right now?” Koestenbaum asked. All us participants staked out room of our own on the sidewalk, making marks toward the missing. Taylor Mead came to mind, though he had lived further downtown, on Ludlow Street, for over three decades. I drew a shaky lineup of stick-figure cats in honor of the dozens of ferals he’d famously cared for in his tiny apartment. Other names too: Tally Brown, Ron Vawter, Ruth Maleczech.
Left and right: Wayne Koestenbaum and others make marks.
More prompts followed from Koestenbaum every few minutes:
“Find an event on the ground to respond to.”
“Bring to mind a shattered romance and make marks toward it.”
“Write something impermissible. Erase it, then reconstruct something from its erasure.”
“Are you guys in an art class?” two Hiltonesque blondes stopped to ask. I thought of how to explain, but decided I didn’t want to. “Yep,” I said. “Cool,” the taller one said. “I totally thought so.” And they walked away. “Population Generic,” I scribbled.
After working in our own sidewalk solitude, trying to mark the particular magic of the street and its grime, we all crossed Avenue A together into Tompkins Square Park, where Koestenbaum instructed us to walk as a group, looking for “omens that signify catalysts for our creative endeavors for the next year.”
“An oversize shirt,” one of the participants pointed to a man walking by. “There’s a toothbrush on the ground,” offered another, scribbling in his sketchpad. “It looks pretty clean too.” Koestenbaum pointed his pencil at a limp plastic bag, weighed down with what looked to be lunchtime garbage, hanging from the park’s iron fence. “Can I turn this into an omen,” he asked us, “or is it too disgusting?”
A rat running across our path. A good omen! A black sock in the dirt. Another one! Fireflies flickering in the descending dusk. The best omen! Someone said that a spray of purple blossoms was an omen because “it’s the time of night when purple disappears.”
“The disappearance of purple is a good thing,” Koestenbaum confirmed and made marks in his notepad.
Signs of our fortunes and futures were revealing themselves at a ravishing velocity, so much so that Koestenbaum announced, “I’m willing to go into the area of canned creativity.” Together, we walked toward a busking jazz quartet who’d been playing Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5” for well over fifteen minutes. Someone pointed to the female figure standing atop the Temperance Fountain, and we all looked up. Seconds later, we heard a loud clinking sound and looked down. A tap from a tap shoe lay on the ground.
Evidence of rhythms gone rogue, I wrote.
It was now time for an impromptu exhibition of our work. We tacked selections from our notepads onto the park fence, leaning in to admire each other’s marks. “Is there something about the arrangement of the work that’s an omen? Something about the v-ness of it?” Koestenbaum asked, and one of the participants raised his hand and said that he didn’t understand exactly what Koestenbaum meant by omen.
“An omen is a detail that we overinvest with meaning. We allow it predictive powers,” the writer explained, citing André Breton’s Nadja as an instance of an author “harvesting the city for signs on the trajectory of a visionary nature.” He paused for a moment, smiling. “People don’t talk credulously about omens anymore,” he said. Lesson: New Yorkers may rightly mourn the blanding of their city, but its possible witchcraft, its omens, have not vanished; it’s those who recognize and read them who are going, gone.
In his 2010 essay “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” Koestenbaum writes that “Second Avenue” expressed—nearly erupted—with “a longing for simultaneity,” a desire for the past and the present to hook up hotly in carnal, eternal immediacy:
Candidly. The past, the sensations of the past. Now!
O’Hara died on July 25, 1966, at the age of forty, having been hit by a dune buggy on Fire Island the day before. It is sad and strange to think that as of this July, one whose poems continue to pulse and enrapt with such tender force will have been gone from the world for nine years longer than he was in it.
As the sky continued to darken, Koestenbaum waved for the group to gather in a circle below a park lamp. Handing each of us a section from “Second Avenue,” he asked that we choose a line or phrase or word to read aloud, round robin. We bowed our heads over our papers, angling them toward the glowing lamplight. In this, an unintended gratitude pose to O’Hara’s excitement, we performed a “Second Avenue” cut-up, pasting together a poem of our own.
which has lines, cuts, drops, aspirates, trembles with horror
your distinction is merely a quill at the bottom of the sea.
and I am a nun trembling before the microphone
kisses on the medulla oblongata of an inky clarity!
You will say I am supernatural.
As we read, the rain began: a parting omen, perhaps to be read as tears if you felt maudlin, a shower if you felt unclean, relief if burdened by the closeness of the heat. Or perhaps, to pull one last line from O’Hara, to be read against the combusting nowness of such enchantment
as a gasp of laughter at desire, and disorder, and dying.
THE JOY-TO-ANXIETY RATIO around birthdays tends to be parabolic, with celebration less fraught the closer you are to either end of the spectrum—very young or very old. When you’re somewhere in the middle, however, there may be more to commemorate in theory, but in practice it feels like there’s just a whole lot more you hope no one brings up.
So it was with Documenta, which celebrated its sixtieth birthday on Sunday with an all-day, Kassel-wide festival mixing in a chamber orchestra; a panel discussion with founder Arnold Bode’s daughter, E. R. Nele; tours of past commissions by artists such as Walter De Maria, Giuseppe Penone, and Hito Steyerl; and an outdoor screening of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988), a favorite of Documenta 14’s artistic director, Adam Szymczyk, who quixotically pitched the event as “an invitation to get lost together, alone.”
The notion of isolation within a community could have just as well applied to the egos at play during the weekend’s centerpiece, the symposium “Expanding Thought Collectives: documenta 1997–2017,” which convened six of the quinquennial’s artistic directors (Catherine David, Okwui Enwezor, Ruth Noack, Roger M. Buergel, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Szymczyk) in the pressure-cooker of an under-air-conditioned Documenta Halle for two days of PowerPoints, Q&A catfights, and ever more tenuous metaphors for the exhibition’s “modality” and/or “potentiality.” The program’s logo inadvertently foregrounded some of these tensions by covering the title in black-and-white vertical stripes, as if the “60 Years of Documenta” were imprisoned in its own legacy. Noack put it more bluntly: “It’s terrific, but it will destroy your life.”
Thursday night, early birds braved the fierce heat to hit the Fridericianum for a retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers put together by the museum’s director, Susanne Pfeffer. The show stretched through all three floors of the building, whose Neoclassical grandeur offered the perfect setting for institution-rumbling installations like The Museum of Modern Art: Department of Eagles.“It’s very generous,” curator Kasper König said to approving nods. “Pfeffer really has a feel for Broodthaers.” Around 8 PM, the sweat-spotted crowd shifted to the backyard for the first of many sausage-based buffets. Too hot to eat, I slipped into conversation with Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden director Johan Holten, artist Susanne M. Winterling, and n.b.k. curator Sophie Goltz, before following curators Candice Hopkins and Natasha Ginwala to a picnic table with Documenta 14 team members Hendrik Folkerts and Sepake Angiama. “Is this the Documenta table?” I asked. “In Kassel, they’re all Documenta tables,” Folkerts laughed.
By 9:30 AM the next morning, the already steamy Documenta Halle was packed with aspiring symposium-goers (after receiving more than eight hundred RSVPs, the organizers resorted to an uncomfortably literal green slip/pink slip system for determining who could get a seat.) The program launched with the German Federal Cultural Foundation’s Hortensia Völckers, who briefly registered her disappointment with Germany’s stance on Greece, before introducing moderator Dorothea von Hantelmann, the first ever Documenta visiting professor at the Kunsthochschule Kassel, and Oliver Marchart, whose keynote set the framework for the rest of the speakers: namely, that David’s Documenta 10 (1997) and Enwezor’s Documenta 11 (2002) marked a profound shift in how exhibitions operate, both on the ground and discursively.
David didn’t always think so. “I remember a few days before the opening, talking with Hortensia and wondering, what if we’ve made a grosse Scheisse—a big shit?” She was quick to explain the lack of artists from the Middle East (she feared tokenism) and the fact that the Chinese artists didn’t make her catalogue. She also recounted how she had originally intended to hold the exhibition in Tehran, only to be reprimanded with “Ms. David, you have a contract for making the exhibition in Kassel.” Having exorcised those lingering demons, David pivoted the panel toward “modernities without museums,” using China as a case study. After a few words from artist Wang Jianwei (who genially prefaced his talk with “Please excuse me if my presentation makes you a little sleepy—I am a conceptual artist”), artist, curator, and now dealer Lu Jie walked the audience through the Long March Project, which David had spun as a kind of substitute for a museum of modern art.
With that, Christov-Bakargiev leapt up: “It’s not true. There is a museum of modern art in China. It’s called NAMOC. I gave a lecture there last year and it’s a fabulous institution.” She then vouched for her own authority in the matter, as a longtime supporter of Long March Project “from the 1990s, if not earlier” (truly vanguard given that LMP, while conceived in 1998, wasn’t realized until 2002). Lu graciously clarified: “We don’t have a MoMA.” “But who wants MoMA?!” Christov-Bakargiev fired back.
Anyone who might have dozed off during Wang’s presentation was awake now. Symposium staffers may as well have been auditioning for Sophie’s Choice as they surveyed the hands rocketing up around the room. A mic went to Enwezor. “I don’t want to join the fray, as it were . . . ,” he began, then shifted the debate toward the “production and acquisition of discursive authority” that allows institutions like MoMA to “provincialize and allocate modernity.” Art historian Griselda Pollock countered that this authority was being misused to “rediscover” rather than “to point the finger at what rendered these things invisible in the first place.”
At this moment, art historian David Joselit took the mic in the museum’s defense: “I know it’s fashionable to bash MoMA right now, but I want to be clear that the museum was founded by three women, whose contributions are not honored by feminists because it’s not ‘art’ but ‘institution building.’ ” (To which Christov-Bakargiev replied, “It’s the least feminist thing to list women as participating in institutions. Margaret Thatcher was also a woman.”) Joselit was careful to highlight the expansiveness of MoMA’s early vision, referring to Alfred Barr’s maps. “Yes, MoMA has led in a certain kind of canon building, but to caricature MoMA in this way is to isolate responsibility for this canon.” It was back to Enwezor, who insisted that it was not a caricature, but rather an acknowledgment of the museum’s “selective recollections”: “Institutions are like organisms. They develop. They have bad habits. They shed those habits, then they acquire new ones.” The curator recalled a recent visit to MoMA’s permanent collection, where a Beauford Delaney now hangs in proximity to Picasso and Dubuffet. “I looked at the acquisition date and saw it was from 2012. This tells us about the institutional self-construction, as it covers up its tracks in order to be able to reinhabit itself.”
While Enwezor seemed to have eased the conversation down from its ledge, König, who until this point had been quietly making postcard collages at his seat, was not there to be soothed. “MoMA acts like the Vatican and the Kremlin all in one!” he bellowed. “The real problem is that the museum has gone corporate. What’s going on in Greece and Germany is also a fucking corporate machine. It doesn’t deal with emotions or real people.” As if the very mention of Greece had tripped a wire, von Hantelmann abruptly cut off further questions, directing the last word to David, who glumly summarized: “It’s not about morality. It’s about cultural policies and politics. We can’t think it changes the world to have one Pakistani artist in an exhibition.”
With that, the symposium broke for lunch, giving audience members an hour to recover from the Q&A whiplash. “We have a word for this in German,” a member of the Documenta team shared quietly on our way out of the Halle. “Elefantenrennen. An elephant race.” I grinned, assuming she meant a clash-of-the-Titans scenario. Looking it up later, I found it is actually applied to the frustrating experience of two slow-moving trucks trying to overtake each other on the highway, blocking all other traffic.
Another sausage buffet down, symposium-goers returned with the dewy glow of Käse sandwiches trapped in a Bahnhof display case. The stifling heat gradually liquefied all decorum. Across the aisle, I watched an old woman in a blue paisley housedress and flesh-colored slippers lean over to scold Documenta 14 curator Dieter Roelstraete—easily double her height—for distracting her as he fanned himself with his program. Over the next two and a half hours, the entire audience would melt into a sea of McGuyveresque fanning devices and Rorschach sweat spots, as on stage, the Enwezor-led Documenta 11 panel roped Raqs Media Collective’s Shuddhabrata Sengupta, cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis, and Documenta 11 cocurator Sarat Maharaj into a meditation on “Globalization from Below.” As Pollock had observed, “When we think of globalization, we keep fabricating a center”—namely, the English language. Enwezor and his colleagues argued that the “Post-Gutenberg pidginization” of the “Anglosphere”—“who is the true native speaker of English these days?”—should be fertile ground for generating new meanings. (Case in point: the flurry of mental imagery conjured when one speaker’s cadenced pronunciation of “peripheral” had us contemplating “what it means to be Perry Farrell in this day and age.”) As the presentations concluded, Enwezor forestalled any Q&A fireworks, announcing, “I’d like to borrow one of my friend and colleague Hans Ulrich’s favorite terms: coffee break. Shall we have one?”
The next morning, serendipity saw Kassel host a Self-Help Health Fair. All down the Friedrichsplatz, white tents were set up with CPR dolls and pamphlets on prostate examinations and how to self-diagnose your borderline personality disorder. That day’s symposium had a slightly trickier objective, covering the contested terrain of Documentas 12–14. The first panel was spiked from the start with some nondecaf confessions from Noack, who with Buergel had organized Documenta 12 in 1997. “This exhibition is only to be had at great personal cost. Some people end up with professional currency; some without health insurance. Discursive hegemony is not the same thing as institutional security.”
The curator also cleared up some misconceptions around what Pollock described as the “much-maligned” Documenta 12. (Indeed, while audience members shared fond remembrances of the exhibition in question, guest panelists spoke of liking it with the pronounced controversy courting of someone professing their preference for post–Voodoo Lounge Rolling Stones.) Noack pointed to the need to think of the Documenta exhibitions in terms of contemporaneity, not genealogy. “When you’re making an exhibition in 2007, some things are not as possible as when you are making it in 2002, or 2012.” Noack argued that Documenta 12 should be thought of not as a reactionary return to form but rather as the logical, progressive continuation of the fissures triggered by David’s and Enwezor’s thinking, questioning, “How can works from different parts of the world be displayed on equal footing?”
For his response, Joselit challenged the usage of words like visibility and surplus as automatic positives. Characterizing large-scale exhibitions as “sadistic on a certain level,” he discussed the need to quickly scan works of art, not just as a defense mechanism but as a mode of perception that allows you to identify where you’d like to zoom in. During the Q&A, Sengupta synthesized Noack’s and Joselit’s points via the business practice known as “flags of convenience,” in which naval ships of one nation register under a different national identity to ensure easy passage. “I think contemporary art gives too much importance to these flags sometimes, so that in these large exhibitions, the artist actually ends up enjoying a certain privacy.”
Privacy was of no concern for Christov-Bakargiev, who prefaced her hour-long ramble with the disclaimer that she can’t be expected to express herself linearly, as she thinks “ecologically,” followed by a live reading of her e-mail correspondence with planned panelist Karen Barad, who was unable to attend for personal reasons. The email focused mainly on encouraging Barad to speak at the curator’s upcoming Istanbul Biennial, promising logistics, lodging, and a fee of 800 euros, “or $1000.” “I felt guilty writing that, because I think it’s less,” she interjected.
Over the lunch break, an art historian had gleefully painted the Documenta psychodrama playing out on stage: “You have Catherine, the grand dame grandmother who can say whatever she wants. Okwui, the high-performing power dad. Carolyn, the crazy aunt . . . ” Christov-Bakargiev inhabited this role just as gleefully, peppering her presentation with outrageous insinuations, such as the idea that Documenta may be responsible for artist Mariam Ghani’s father’s becoming president of Afghanistan. (“We can’t say for sure, of course, but we did spend every day at his house when we were there.”) Audience tolerance faded as her talk soared well past the twenty-minute mark. After brushing off the first cues to curb her presentation, Christov-Bakargiev bristled at more aggressive attempts. When scrolling through a set of slides of Pierre Huyghe’s commission, she feistily snapped, “Because it seems we have no time to speak of Pierre, we will know nothing of Pierre. He speaks of no-knowledge zones, so that’s probably what he’d like anyway.”
Fellow panelists and Documenta 13 alums Tino Sehgal and Kristina Buch aimed for speed, while Pollock opted for a scripted conversation, which she handed to Christov-Bakargiev to read, essentially giving her own interview. “You had a wonderful project in 2007. Can you tell us more about that?” the curator read haltingly, and—having rediscovered the notion of time—repeatedly checked her watch, as Pollock expounded on speculative intersections among Charlotte Salomon, Hannah Arendt, and Donna Haraway.
When it was time for questions, the first came from Sehgal, who was “curious about the binary Griselda had presented.” “It’s called a dialectic,” Pollock corrected, prompting Christov-Bakargiev to jump in on her behalf: “Tino, we need to remember that Griselda has been writing for forty years. That means something. She’s speaking in the 1960s and ’70s manner of speaking.” (“I never thought I would ever feel sorry for Tino,” my companion whistled.) Once more, it was von Hantelmann to the rescue, announcing that she would allow just one more question from an elderly gentleman—later identified as Broodthaer’s former patron Isi Fiszman—who, having spent the better part of the conference shuffling in and out of seats in a bid to sit closer to König, asked, “Yes, you used the word matrixial. I just wanted to know if either Carolyn or Griselda have kids, and if not, what they know about motherhood?”
“2015, everybody . . . ” art historian Claire Bishop sighed.
Her comment made me realize how little contact the symposium had with the outside world. By setting the date range of 1997–2017, we could take Documenta’s prominence for granted, without having to contemplate its origins within the process of Germany’s postwar restructuring—a topic that had been bounced around liberal news outlets in response to the country’s tough public stance on Greece. (Though not only Greece. See also the video circulating of Angela Merkel’s cringe-inducing attempt to explain to a fourteen-year-old Palestinian girl facing deportation why her aspirations ranked lower than her classmates’.)
Hopes were high that the final presentation on Documenta 14, which now boasts a team twenty-nine strong, with offices in both Athens and Kassel, might change this. If the crowd had visibly thinned for Christov-Bakargiev’s aria, it was back to full capacity, with pink-slipped audience members squatting wherever there was space. When Szymczyk took the stage, however, it wasn’t for grandstanding. He spoke only as the narrator of a collaborative concert by artist Hiwa K and flamenco performer Carmen Amor. The artist, a trained flamenco guitarist, interspersed gripping vocal performances by Amor with autobiographical vignettes and films, referencing his journey on foot from his native town of Sulaimaniyya, Iraq, through Turkey and into Europe. When the performance ended, all three figures walked off stage.
For the first time all weekend, everyone was speechless.
A RUMBLE SHUDDERED across the sky and lightning set fire to palm trees as the hot wet spatter of a tropical storm washed over a startled Los Angeles this past weekend. It hardly seemed to discourage the hordes that capered across the city for a deluge of openings and performances. Dave Muller began the weekend early on Tuesday with the inauguration of a year’s worth of his legendary Three Day Weekends at Blum & Poe. Muller manned the turntables, spinning records so strange it felt like he invented them. “This one’s psychedelic reggae,” he said. Inside, posters from Muller’s collection angled in weird places, Ricky Swallow sculptures sat next to the bathroom sink, a green glow courtesy Julian Hoeber covered the office fluorescents, and poems by seventy-one-year-old poet Aram Saroyan were painted by Muller behind the DJ booth. CRICKETS CRICKETS CRICKETS . . . flowed down the window, over and over. “This is thrilling,” said Saroyan. “It’s my Los Angeles debut, and right at the top!”
I thought of the sweet chirps of crickets the following Saturday afternoon as I sat at the top of an embankment listening to raindrops splash into the surging Los Angeles River. Two women danced in men’s button-down shirts on the concrete lip over the water, part of HomeLA’s dress rehearsal at the Women’s Center for Creative Work. The dance troupe, run by Rebecca Bruno, performs only in homes, though today the domestic-ish space was WCCW’s home along the water. Artist Soyoung Shin reluctantly canceled her performance that involved climbing a flagpole, which she concluded was inadvisable in a lightning storm, opting instead for a consciousness-raising talk. Inside, Constance Strickland hollered and convulsed, emoting a mysterious domestic trauma, while in the kitchen a couple spun and fought while making cookies. For the finale, Samantha Mohr, in a diaphanous dress and roped to a drainage channel, gyrated like a spooky Ophelia near the water. “Seventy-five percent chance of rain,” one of the dancers told her beforehand. “But you look cute so you’ll be fine.” Midway through, a perplexed ranger warned the assembled crowd of a potential flash flood before heading back to his truck to watch the rest of the performance at a safe distance.
I headed south to a wet barbecue celebrating the opening of two group shows at François Ghebaly and Fahrenheit. Curator Jesse McKee walked me through his “Stopping the Sun in Its Course” at Ghebaly, which featured the druidic smear of paintings by Lucy Stein, three years’ worth of queer exuberance at English discos by Dick Jewell, and a blown-up comic by Walter Scott following his benighted avatar Wendy: “Palm Trees. Symbols of paradise.,” it read. “And Yet. The aspirational green foliage BETRAYED—by a history laid before us. Revealed in the dead hanging leaves—the decimated HUSKS of a private death made public. Just like my LIFE.”
This exuberant, muddy ball-gown of a show lifted its skirt for a French tickler as I set off down the hallway to “Faux Pas,” curated by Parisian alt-space Shanaynay, in residence at Fahrenheit. With a John Wesley bathing suit, flaccid knockoffs of Ettore Sottsass vases, and a giant pink mural of a silhouetted woman’s ass getting fingered, it felt like a lascivious grin, summed up by a lusty man in a Playboy cartoon by Eldon Dedini who announced, bottle of wine in hand and standing over a well-endowed naked lass, “We’ve had French. Let’s try Californian!”
Left: Artists Kate Costello and Jedidiah Caesar with writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer. Right: Dealer Jeff Poe.
Twenty minutes later I was in a gallery in Culver City, standing next to a lovely chiffon sheet of pastels and palms that stretched over the imposing two-by-four skeleton of a building, a bow-tied bartender placed in my hands a heavy ceramic goblet by Shoshi Kanokohata filled with a particularly stiff twist on the Zombie. This was all a part of “New Babylon,” curated by Michael Dopp, at Roberts & Tilton. The skeletal “house,” painted a bright blue (a shade called “Safe Harbor”) and designed by Joakim Dahlqvist, filled the gallery, and works by fourteen artists hung from its naked frame. I gulped my drink down quick and motored around the corner to glimpse a trio of solo shows by Victoria Fu, Kenneth Noland, and Kaz Oshiro at Honor Fraser and arrived just in time to miss a Ryan Gander performance at China Art Objects curated by Lauren Mackler/Public Fiction.
I left the rich umbers and mauves cracking the storm clouds of the sunset behind me and headed east toward La Brea to openings for Tala Madani at David Kordansky and “About Face,” curated by writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer and former dealer Kristina Kite, at Kayne Griffin Corcoran. Walking from one show to the other, collector Michael Austin raved about Madani, noting the timing of the Tehran-born artist’s exhibition so close to the signing of the accord with the Islamic Republic. Across the street, powerful ladies in funky colors populated both the walls and front courtyard. “This show is amazing,” painter Rebecca Morris told Lehrer-Graiwer. “All the artists are going crazy in there.” When asked if she was stressed out from the installation, Lehrer-Graiwer said, “Not at all. My cheeks are flushed from smiling so much.”
Left: Dealer David Kordansky and Tala Madani. Right: Dealer François Ghebaly.
Though I was tempted to join the fray at MoCA’s Step and Repeat or KCHUNG’s closing at perhspace or Joshua Petker’s opening at Ashes/Ashes, instead I rode the freeway to my last stop at Night Gallery, where hundreds of people surged under the shiny panels of a drop ceiling hanging above the summer party organized by the New Art Dealers Alliance. An installation of videos curated by Marc LeBlanc included a moving (and loud) trio of projections by artist James Richards. Nine years ago, the upstart art fair hosted a sunset party at the West Hollywood Standard to an invite-only crowd. This was almost the exact opposite of that starchy professional conclave: open, free, ecstatic, all sound-tracked by the crash and hum of underground acts organized by musician Tim Leanse. Night Gallery’s Davida Nemeroff summed up the evening as an “ambient rave.” Ted Byrnes of AQH virtuosically pounded his drum kit in cacophonous splendor. The crowd sat down to listen to the witchy allure of curator and musician Chiara Giovando, who layered her voice electronically under the syncopated strum of an acoustic guitar. Around midnight, the crowd began to thin, but Sam Rowell’s beautiful combination of sound and light came through the warehouse like electronic thunder. I left after the last act quit the stage, the pulse of dance music following my footsteps through the puddles into the hot wet Los Angeles night.
“TOO MANY QUEERS, too many screenings, too little time,” joked a Dirty Looks audience member last week. This month, to celebrate its biannual On Location series, there’s a screening every day (thirty-one in all), as the itinerant initiative shows rarely seen queer moving-image work in some of New York’s gay-cruising/art-viewing landmarks. Creative director Bradford Nordeen’s Dirty Looks provides a platform for more than innuendo; over the past five years the organization has proved one of the best forums for experimental queer cinema in New York City and beyond.
“The films are fantastic, but it’s really their pairing with screening locations that makes Dirty Looks what it is,” said artist and longtime New York resident Adrian Saich. “Most of these places have emotional importance for us.” On Location’s itinerary is a veritable scavenger hunt through New York’s queer scenes, dropping in on historic haunts such as the Stonewall Inn and Julius in the West Village and engaging new hotspots like the Spectrum and Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn.
Four recent screenings provided a perspective into Dirty Looks’ wide-ranging demographics. July 5 brought us to the Rusty Knot for Neil Goldberg’s She’s a Talker, curated by Theodore Kerr and Carl Williamson. The scene was Scissor Sundays, a weekly party thrown by musician/provocateur JD Samson and Amber Valentine replete with coconut cocktails, nautical interiors, and sunset views of the Hudson River. “It looks like Fire Island in here,” said Vice photo editor Matthew Leifheit as he gazed at the crowd of tank-topped twinks in boat shoes.
Goldberg’s two-minute video is a supercut montage of eighty gay men petting their cats while musing, “She’s a talker.” Created in 1993—well before the Internet’s obsession with cat memes—the work evinces the losses ravaged during the height of the AIDS crisis. The refrain speaks to the time’s fraught emotional intimacy—many of the felines are stand-in companions for the lonesome sitters’ former partners.
The Rusty Knot’s location in the once gay epicenter of the West Village made the AIDS context all the more palpable. The decision to stage the “intervention” during Scissor Sundays meant that less than half the bar was there for the screening. Without an informative introduction, drunken revelers laughed their way through (and at) the cat-friendly video, and the emotional poignancy felt mostly lost.
The charged dynamic between crowd and context continued uptown at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem during the following night’s screening: “Misadventures in Black Dyke Dating in the 1990s,” a compelling program of shorts by queer black filmmakers Cheryl Dunye, Jocelyn Taylor, Dawn Suggs, and Shari Frilot. More than one hundred viewers, including poet Pamela Sneed and filmmaker Barbara Hammer, filled the theater to well over capacity, requiring the organizers to open a downstairs auxiliary space for a simulcast. Program curator Vivian Crockett bravely began the evening by encouraging those in the air-conditioned upstairs theater to trade seats with any of the queer, black women who remained downstairs. More than half of the attendees scuttled downstairs, their privileged identity positions in tow.
The program’s “misadventures” moniker rang true, as the many Mses in the shorts navigated everything from interracial affairs to familial misunderstandings. Cheers were loudest when credits to Dawn Suggs’s I Never Danced the Way Girls Were Supposed To read, “This film is dedicated to black lesbians everywhere,” and the hour-long postscreening discussion included some uncomfortable yet productive discussions and testimonies around identity politics, safe spaces, and the woes of falling “victim to lesbian serial monogamy.”
Dirty Looks’ July 8 event assembled an equally populous yet entirely different demographic, as bearded gay men packed the dimly lit Eagle in Chelsea for a projection of Wakefield Poole’s 1972 gay porn Bijou. Artist Rebecca Levi, one of the few women in attendance, noted that Dirty Looks screenings are often chock-full of cuties but also suffused with body odor. Yet the fervent armpit licking occurring in the Eagle’s back corner demonstrated that not everyone was discouraged by the summer sweat.
The titular Bijou in the East Village was for decades a popular underground cinema for gay cruising. Filmmaker Jim Hubbard recounted the “sexual nooks and crannies” of the now defunct theater, smiling as he noted that one could even have sex behind the video projection screen.
Poole’s porn is a hallucinogenic maze of sexual escapades set to a melodramatic sound track. Violin crescendos accompany Technicolor six-somes, and the length of the protagonist’s appendage was the talk of the night. Watching gay porn in a room full of art fags felt, unsurprisingly, pretentious and unsexy, exemplified when one viewer shushed the audience when others’ flirting impeded his viewing experience. In stark contrast to habitués of the original Bijou, this group was focused on watching those on screen get off as opposed to using the darkened screening context as an opportunity to play themselves. Music from the Eagle’s “Jockstrap Wednesday” party blasted over the final minutes of Bijou, and the evening eventually continued upstairs with far less clothing and far more action.
Thursday’s screening at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, curated by Carmel Curtis, featured politically minded archival footage of drag queen Joan Jett Blakk’s announcement of her presidential campaign in 1992 paired with trans activist Sylvia Rivera documenting her gay homeless camp in the West Village in 1995. Blakk ran for the “orifice of the President of the United States” under the slogan “Lick Bush in ’92.” Citing Ronald Reagan, Blakk asks (quite reasonably): “If a bad actor can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?” Between gags, the tongue-in-cheek speech calls out the underrepresentation of queers in politics. The proceeding footage of riveting trans lightning rod Sylvia Rivera provided a fitting counterpoint, with Rivera lambasting mainstream norms as well as the larger gay community for turning a blind eye to the homeless queers occupying the shantytown where she lived. An engaging discussion led by the media-preservation collective XFR on the impartiality of archives followed the screening. The audience sported activist couture like a pink PRISON ABOLITION snapback and an ACT UP “The Government Has Blood on Its Hands” shirt. In our gay-marriage era, it’s reassuring to know spaces like those fostered by Dirty Looks can be a forum for queerer politics to make a comeback.
THE PAY PHONE. Hardly is the word on paper and I cannot help checking to make sure that it is not one word, instead of two. It looks wrong. It’s so old, it feels brand new.
There are two Doug Aitken pay phones in Europe right now and there should be more. We could have monuments of disconnect like this in every city across the world. Right now there’s one in Zurich (at Eva Presenhuber) and one here in Frankfurt at the Schirn Kunsthalle, which is celebrating an extensive survey of the artist. Their glow ebbs and flows in response to how the people in the room move. twilight, he’s titled the piece. It’s his favorite time. “Twilight is when my brain begins to shut down,” I complain. Aitken revises the thought: “I don’t think it’s about shutting down but about the many different rhythms in a day.”
It’s the joy division of these rhythms that has been the subject of his research his whole life long. And getting out of one of them: “I went to southern Oaxaca, Mexico, recently to research a place without Internet.” Aitken began investigating these so-called “black world” zones in 1997. Feral capitalism in ten thousand square miles of restricted access in Namibia (Diamond Sky, 1997), or the current mental malaise of placelessness: “Never stagnate, never stop. Exchange, connect, move on,” Chloë Sevigny tells us in his 2011 film Black Mirror.
I arrive at Wednesday’s opening to find an acoustically soothing, pagan unearthing in the middle of the Schirn’s rotunda: Aitken’s Sonic Fountain II, blipping and blopping slowly, arrhythmically. I can hear director Max Hollein’s opening speech through the speakers nearby: “You give Doug Aitken all of the existent exhibitable space of the Schirn, and he responds with ‘I want more.’ ” Apparently his films will be shown in cinemas across town and at the airport baggage claim as well.
“What is Aitken’s work about?” Hollein asks, then responds: “The human condition in a transformative world.” I catch up with curator Matthias Ulrich at the end of a Juddlike sculpture, poking his head through the stenciled E-N-D while I peek through the R-U-N opposite. Jaki Liebezeit is schedule to perform after dinner, and I ask what that’s about. “The former Krautrock drummer, you know? From the band Can?” Oh my gato, I think, picking up on an expression Aitken learned in Mexico.
Talking to Aitken is like conversing with a disruptive popup Wikimusic window. Over dinner, he can barely hold back: “That’s a line from Iggy Pop.” And soon thereafter he’s caught me quoting Bob Dylan unawares. I ask him if he’s found it more difficult to be a man on the move—his Station to Station project finished its cross-country US tour last year and has now moved on to the Barbican in London—since the world knows about the fantastic house he built. (It’s a house that plays music. The tables, the stairs, like variable xylophones, according to a profile in the Times Magazine.) “What do you mean by that?” he asks. Hollein, across the table from us, laughs and explains: “She means the sexual gentrification of your personality.” LA MoCA director Philippe Vergne, sitting nearby, chimes in: “Location, location, location.” Vergne’s showing the luminous pay phone next year in Los Angeles.
The table is cramped, the food delicate and down-to-earth, a fancy corn chowder and ceviche piled with French fries. We are elbow to elbow, and when Doug orders vegetarian, it sparks a dialogue about the beaver in the bathtub in his film Migration (Empire). Artist Alicja Kwade, sitting to his right, says, “My uncle once killed a beaver and ate it.” We grimace. “Oh don’t worry. There was an overpopulation problem in the forests of Poland. He’s not a monster or anything!” Conversation turns to Aitken’s performance involving farm auctioneers, a work we all love but that hasn’t made it to the Schirn, and a place called Farmville in Virginia. “Oh I’m always repeating myself. You know, when my father died, I found some twenty copies of Ulysses under the bed, all of which had copious notes from different times in his life.” It’s not surprising that the son would make traveling his life theme. It also makes me wonder if his sculpture END/RUN (timeline) upstairs has anything to do with Finnegans Wake. “Let us leave theories there and return to here’s hear.” (That’s James Joyce, of course, not me.)
I ask Vergne if he’d flown in just for the opening. Yes. Others who’d done the same: representatives of Aitken’s galleries Victoria Miro, 303’s Cristian Alexa and Erika Weiss, and Regen Projects’s Jennifer Loh. (Eva Presenhuber was at the Schirn early the following morning.) Talk about presence.
The night ends, as nights are wont to do in Frankfurt, with a happy dozen or so for last drinks at the Mona Lisa. I ask Weiss about her schedule, a gallerista’s quotidian migrations. “I landed today, slept for twenty minutes before hopping on a train to Mannheim to see Kwade’s show, Aitken tonight and Katharina Grosse tomorrow in Wiesbaden, then back to New York for a day, then to Venice via Berlin, on to Moscow so that I can get to . . . ” and here she takes a breath, “ . . . visit some old churches in Armenia.”
“Anything longer than a day is too much time.” Sevigny’s quote wafts through my mind as I head back to the hotel for some (here stealing an Aitken title) 99-cent dreams.
Left: Collector Isabel Zumtobel. (Photo: April Elizabeth Lamm) Right: Staedelschule rector Philippe Pirotte (left) and Portikus curator Fabian Schöneich (right). (Photo: Alexander Paul Englert)