Saturday, November 29, 2008

Art Basel Miami Beach and the New Economy

Diminished Expectations or Potential for a New Democracy?

The following is a repost of my original texts on an Artworld Salon thread regarding Art Basel Miami Beach.

In the past, my reasons for going to Miami were only partially motivated by ABMB and the various satellite fairs. There were museum openings, collections to be viewed, a whole panoply of local galleries and artists, various curated shows, book signings, concerts and outdoor events which made Miami a hundred ring circus during that heady week.

All of this will again be happening in a few days, but of course it is ultimately based on the central commercial premise of the fairs, and would not be scheduled but for that thriving center. If money is not being abundantly spent, if art is not being sold, if the top echelon of movers and shakers does not show up with open wallets, the whole house of cards can easily fall down.

Art Basel (in Switzerland) has survived previous economic downturns, but ABMB, its younger and glitzier offshoot, has not. The excesses of ABMB since 2002 have been nurtured by a continuous art boom. It will be interesting to watch a new sobriety take hold, to see if the words “sober” and “Miami” can be uttered by the art world in a single breath.

Unfortunately I will not be there to see it. For the first time in seven years I am not attending. This has less to do with the economy than with personal logistics. But apparently I am not alone. From my sources “on the ground” in Miami, I have heard that hotel reservations are down 30 percent from last year. This is a significant but unsubstantiated figure, and might apply to general tourism rather than ABMB per se. Certainly I know many curators, critics and other members of the arts intelligentsia who are attending, for the simple reason that they are being shipped down as part of the event, to serve on panels and conversations. Others are being sent to cover the event for their magazines. I have recently received hundreds of emails announcing gallery participation in the various fairs, and an admittedly smaller number announcing special events. So Miami, to be sure, will not be a ghost town.

The real variable is those who must devote themselves to a week in Miami on their own dime - the freelancers, the bloggers, even the journeyman artists - as well as smaller galleries who have put down a deposit on their booths and now, as Jonathan notes, must decide whether to double down on an iffy hand.

The one constant in Miami will be the chatter. Talk is cheap, and even without the same plethora of cash, you can bet there will be just as much talk. This year it will coalesce around a singularly interesting topic, the lack of money.

After an unscientific sampling of this year's attendees, allow me to expand on some of the above. As a fair matures, it attracts greater participation from all strata of the art world. There is a trickle down effect, a hopeful emulation of activity at the top. Art Basel's success in Miami over the past six years has spawned a slew of satellite fairs and artist run projects, emanating from within Miami but also from New York and other points north.

It is possible that this year will be the most democratic yet, as artists and other attendees with small budgets find cheap hotels or friends to crash with, and stay on for four or five nights, hoping to advance their careers, attend some openings and parties, and have a bit of fun in the sun. This modest forecast is certainly not the glitz, glamor and rampant consumption that was built into the original concept of ABMB, but it does suggest a sustainable model for Miami to continue as the art world's early "winter break", as a sort of art convention, a non profit sortie into community building and networking in the subtropical vacationland.

It also recalls the hotel based art fairs of the mid-1990s, when the Gramercy International (forerunner of the Armory Show) and others were established not just as market tools but as venues for experimentation, for sharing ideas, assessing the terrain, establishing professional courtesies and modes of conduct among a guild of young dealers. Growing up in public was not just allowed but expected. It was a moment of heady, nervy amateurism. With the art market in a slump, no one really knew whether these fairs would attract a collector base.

Are the smaller hotel fairs dotting Collins Avenue above Lincoln Road, or some of their cousins in the tents and warehouses of Wynwood, an indication of the humbler, gentler future of the marketplace as we move through a recession? As per Jonathan's thread opener, current expectations would have to be amended. Fairs would need to become less expensive propositions. Because at current prices, galleries cannot afford to rent large booths, ship art, pay for insurance, book hotels and flights and arrange dinners without a strong confidence in market return. But is a high octane platform like Art Basel capable of running on cheaper fuel?

If the fair no longer guarantees an A-list of international collectors, if major Europeans stay away from Miami this year, or come but don't spend, just as many Americans apparently neglected the Frieze, FIAC and Berlin fairs in recent months, then ABMB would become both more parochial and less lucrative. At some point this would preclude the participation of many leading dealers. This scaling back is obviously relative to an individual mega-gallery's cash reserve, but could quickly impact on mid-size and smaller dealers. As mentioned above, many who are sitting their booths in Miami this year had already put their money down before the full extent of the economic downturn was apparent. They would not necessarily do so now, nor going forward. Once a descending spiral like this gets started, it might eventually leave only the arrivistes and the mediocre, the carrion birds picking at the bones of a once vital world class art event.

In current practice, ABMB is not a grass roots movement but an elitist affair. It is ordained from the top down, not built from the bottom up, with the pecking order particularly exposed under its one, big, open tent. (This metaphorical invocation of the panopticon is visually realized on the catwalk of the Miami Beach Convention Center, with the entire fair spread out below, the big booths front and center, the smaller ones sorted along the perimeter.) Since almost everyone in the art world is looking for upward mobility, should sales dramatically dwindle at the top of the pyramid, among the most powerful, visible and influential dealers who show the most expensive work, a sense of diminishing possibilities will likely soon permeate all levels.

There is nothing inherently untenable in a new modesty of scale and purpose, but it would require a major realignment of the zeitgeist, a "kinder, gentler" art world. A new model would not have us look to the top of the pyramid for validation, even though that is where the all-seeing eye resides on our dollar bill. A new model would level the playing field rather than heaping the stones upward, stressing lateral, horizontal bonds of cooperation rather than vertical preening. Would this even be recognizable as an art fair? Not by current parameters. But it might lend a collective sigh of relief, a welcome chance for the art world to stop holding its breath and finally exhale.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Terrorism in Mumbai

There is no Thanksgiving holiday in India. The "Indians" that the Puritans encountered in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century were neither Hindu nor Muslim, but indigenous tribes of Native Americans. But on Wednesday November 26, 2008, on the eve of Thanksgiving, while Americans were getting ready to join their families and celebrate their annual turkey day, twenty six terrorists arrived by sea in the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, first on a fishing trawler hijacked somewhere on the Arabian Sea, and then via small inflatable motorboats.

They were armed to the teeth with guns, hand grenades and explosives, and carried several days provisions of dried fruit. They landed at night near the Gateway to India along the busy south Mumbai waterfront, and fanned out to various planned locations: two luxury hotels, a touristy cafe/restaurant, a hospital, cinema, busy train depot, a Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish center, even a local police station. They sprayed bullets into crowds of people, set fires, blew up cars and other facilities, and took hostages. Americans and Brits were particularly targeted, but locations frequented by Westerners were obviously selected for maximum impact.

This was not just an attack against one country. The body count is now posted as 125 dead and well over 300 wounded. It is already being called the worst terror attack on Indian soil, 26.11 for short, to rhyme with New York's infamous 9.11.

Not considered an Al Qaeda offshoot, the suspected cell is identified (as of this writing) as part of LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba), another Islamic terrorist organization that makes its home either in Pakistan or in the lawless tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan, and whose primary objective is to end Indian rule in Kashmir. LeT has previously struck inside India and Mumbai. But this particular attack was the most vicious yet in its execution, the most audacious in its planning, and stretched over a longer time frame. More than 24 hours passed while the gunmen held hostages and barricaded themselves in hotel rooms, as Indian security forces undertook the long process of "sanitizing" their city.

The recent violence is also more symbolically loaded, and would be the equivalent in New York of seeing terrorists land at the Statue of Liberty and shoot up the Waldorf Astoria, the Plaza Hotel and Times Square. Witnessing a national landmark like the Taj Mahal Hotel engulfed in flames might well resonate in the Indian consciousness with the same intensity that the nightmare of the World Trade Center's twin towers is burned into the American psyche.

The FBI recently announced that an Al Qaeda communication had been intercepted which suggested a "plausible but unsubstantiated" threat of attack on the NYC subway system during the holiday season. But are we now witnessing the new face of terrorism? Amphibious suicide assaults right in the center of a city? One commentator on today's CNN IBN live feed noted that it was more difficult for terrorists to strike directly at the US and UK. Our security is too formidable, and they cannot blend into the population. But striking at Western tourists in India, where conditions are more "porous", is a possible fallback strategy.

Mumbai: 48 hour update

November 28, 2008. The siege of Mumbai continues to its sad, bloody conclusion. Terrorists retreated yesterday to three locations: the Taj Hotel, the Trident Oberoi Hotel, and Nariman House, which houses a Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center. The terrorists are barricaded with guns and explosives, surrounded by the dead bodies of their victims and using their live hostages as human shields.

A spokesman for the NSG (National Security Guards), the Indian anti-terrorist commando unit, announced yesterday that the Taj Hotel had been fully cleared. This claim was premature, and in fact at least one terrorist, with an unknown number of hostages, is still alive, holed up in a back room. There was a recent explosion in a first floor rear public room, and a sporadic exchange of gunfire still maintains.

All actions at the Oberoi are now declared concluded. Four terrorists were killed. Thirty bodies of slain hostages have been removed, bringing the death toll to 155.

The terrorist's last stand is concentrated at Nariman House, where a rabbi from New York and his wife were reported among the hostages and feared dead. Nariman is located in a densely populated area of Mumbai, with narrow streets and alleys, making a frontal commando assault difficult. The only approach for NSG forces was to rappel down from a helicopter to the rooftop. The most recent report indicates two terrorists killed and five hostage bodies discovered. There have been new explosions. An excited and occasionally inebriated crowd of onlookers had to be cordoned off by the police.

"Hanukkah Bush"

Here is the invitation to the annual White House Hanukkah party that the Bush family sent to America's Jewish leaders.

You might note a Clydesdale delivering the traditional "Hanukkah Tree" to a White House festooned from top to bottom in "Hanukkah wreaths". The wagon is also appropriately inscribed with a Hanukkah text sacred to Jews the world over: "White House Christmas Tree 2008".

Here is another shot of the scene, from the rear.

Did I hear anyone say "horse's ass"? How about "jive honky"? This incident once again affirms the abundant sensitivity and charm that George W. Bush brings to his dealings with non-Christian minorities, whether domestically or in Iraq, Guantanamo, wherever.

When contacted about the gaffe, a White House spokesman said that separate cards are usually printed, but in the waning days of the presidency there had been an oversight. "Mrs. Bush is apologetic. It is something that just slipped through the cracks."

As the current administration is fundamentally clueless, they probably do not realize this mistake inadvertently points out a wrinkle of Jewish assimilation in America. Certain families purchase a tree during the holiday season so that their children, inundated with Christmas cheer and Christmas carols, do not feel isolated or deprived of the gift giving tradition. While these families typically celebrate Hanukkah, the eight day Festival of Lights, with a menorah and candles, the Christmas paraphernalia is added as a secondary characteristic of the season. And the tree brought into the Jewish household is often waggishly referred to as a "Hanukkah bush".

So what will "Hanukkah Bush" serve the Jewish dignitaries who attend his fete? Since ham, bacon and lobster are decidedly not kosher, might I suggest chicken? or perhaps some lame duck?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

From the Alpha and the Omega, the Raw and the Cooked, the Fowl and the Fare.

The Kindest Act of George W. Bush's Presidency...

...would be to resign right now and end his lame duck waffling, before his widely perceived incompetence and the total lack of faith that investors place in the current administration cause the Dow to fall another thousand points. A lot of damage can still ensue prior to Obama assuming office on January 20, 2009.

Rather than an admission of defeat, such an unexpected act of generosity and humility, of self realization and courage, while totally out of character, might prop up his reputation. By giving up his current posture of doing nothing and instead quitting decisively and posthaste, Bush has a chance (a small chance, to be sure, but still a possibility) of rescuing a legacy generally perceived as a total disaster and elevating it to the merely mediocre. His self imposed departure, effective immediately, would reveal a "kinder, gentler" man, or at least one who has made some peace with the imperatives of history.

Hey W! Can't find the door? Let us help you! We promise it won't hit you in the ass on your way out!

The following observations are taken from a article entitled Is Obama President Yet?:

Bush vanished during the campaign, at the request of John McCain's aides, and hasn't really been back in the spotlight since. When he has emerged, during a time of economic crisis, to try to soothe the markets and the public, the results have been, um, counterproductive. His invisibility, and his failure to lead, have made the transition between this administration and the next that much more challenging for the man who's taking his job in less than two months. Without any of the power of the office, Barack Obama is already finding himself responsible for reassuring the nation about its future -- because Bush, apparently, can't.

The transition team is trying for balance between getting ready to govern and respecting the guy who's (nominally) still in charge, but it's not an easy balance to strike: At this point in the Bush era, the number of people who wish Obama could simply take over already ... is growing faster than the number of Fortune 500 companies applying for federal bailouts. "It's not as if people don't know Bush is still president; this is not a mystery to anybody," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "They just wish it wasn't so."

If Bush wasn't the lamest of lame ducks, of course, it might be easier to manage the transition period. But ... the current president has been mostly missing in action. With approval ratings hovering around 25 percent, that's not entirely surprising; when only one in four Americans still likes you, how effectively could you push any agenda? But even Bush allies say he's left something of a leadership gap that Obama has little choice but to fill. "Part of the problem we've had with the financial crisis is we haven't had a visible leader of the country on economic issues for a long time," said Vin Weber, a former House member from Minnesota and now a Republican power broker who's in frequent contact with the White House. "We have not had -- in my judgment -- a national leader speaking to the economic crisis for months and months and months. Now we have a new president, and he can fill that void."
A similar sentiment arrives in a recent New York Times op-ed column:

Thanksgiving is next week, and President Bush could make it a really special holiday by resigning.

Seriously. We have an economy that’s crashing and a vacuum at the top. Bush — who is currently on a trip to Peru to meet with Asian leaders who no longer care what he thinks — hasn’t got the clout, or possibly even the energy, to do anything useful. His most recent contribution to resolving the fiscal crisis was lecturing representatives of the world’s most important economies on the glories of free-market capitalism.

Putting Barack Obama in charge immediately isn’t impossible. Dick Cheney, obviously, would have to quit as well as Bush. In fact, just to be on the safe side, the vice president ought to turn in his resignation first. (We’re desperate, but not crazy.) Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become president until Jan. 20. Obviously, she’d defer to her party’s incoming chief executive, and Barack Obama could begin governing.

As a bonus, the Pelosi presidency would put a woman in the White House this year after all. On the downside, a few right-wing talk-show hosts might succumb to apoplexy. That would, of course, be terrible, but I’m afraid we might have to take the risk in the name of a greater good...

A great many Americans have been counting the days all year on their 2008 George W. Bush Out of Office Countdown calendars...

In the past, presidents have not taken well to suggestions that they hand over the reins before the last possible minute ... Bush might not love the idea of quitting before he has a chance to light the Christmas tree or commute the execution of one last presidential turkey. After all, he still has a couple more trips planned. And last-minute regulations to issue. (So many national parks to despoil, so many endangered species to exterminate ... .) And then there’s all the packing.

On the other hand, he might want to consider his legacy, such as it is.

In happier days, Bush may have nurtured hopes of making it into the list of America’s mediocre presidents, but somewhere between Iraq and Katrina, that goal became a mountain too high. However, he might still have a chance to avoid the absolute bottom of the barrel, a spot currently occupied by James Buchanan, at least in my opinion. Buchanan nailed down The Worst President title in the days between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration, when the Southern states began seceding and Buchanan, after a little flailing about, did absolutely nothing...

If Bush gives up doing nothing by giving up his job, it’s possible that someday history might elevate him to the ranks of the below average...

We’ve been living a Technicolor version of “The Perils of Pauline.” Detroit is tied to the railroad tracks and the train is coming! California’s state government is falling into the sea! The way we’re going now, by the time the inauguration rolls around, unemployment will be at 10 percent and the Dow will be at 10.

Time for a change.

Guests of The Power 100, Per Se

I receive regular updates from Paul H-O on the progress of his film Guest of Cindy Sherman, which I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival in May.

In the category of striking while the iron is hot: His email from yesterday (November 25), eleven days after Sherman's opening at Metro, announces a list of festivals where the film has recently screened, an upcoming Christmas party, a new DVD release and a blog address. It also points out that, for the first time since 2003, Ms. Sherman has made The Power 100 list of ArtReview magazine. She is number 82, with the following text:

What better testament could there be to Sherman's place among the artworld elite than this year's release of Paul H-O's Guest of Cindy Sherman, a documentary about H-O's (Hasegawa-Overacker) five-year relationship with the reclusive art celeb and the ego erosion - 'subjective detumescence', as the academics would say - that befalls him (Sherman last appeared on the Power 100 in 2003)? H-O plays the Oscar-wife to Sherman's A-list life, but still manages to offer perhaps the most unmediated portrait ever made of (or by) the artist. And after all that, she still looks good.

Much as I enjoy H-O's activities and his in-your-face subversion of art world proprieties, I find it nothing short of amazing that ArtReview's entire text on Sherman's "power" is based on her appearance in his film. Does this say something about AR's priorities of fame and reputation? Sherman is found on page 146 of the November issue. On page 145 is Jerry Saltz, number 79, who is allowed a full page meditation that includes the following:

I love being on the ArtReview Power 100 List. People congratulate me and I get to pretend that I don't really know about it or care. Before making the list, I made fun of it; now that I'm on it, I dread being taken off...
I may be part of the power structure, but I don't write for power...If I get fired by New York Magazine I will lose my so-called power; hopefully I wouldn't lose whatever credibility I have, or don't have, with readers. Power is about money, fads, fickleness and folly; it's what the world gives. Credibility is what you give yourself, what cannot be taken away.

No way, per se, to fault this high minded peroration. Nor the scrumptious petit fours that he might have enjoyed at Per Se.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures

Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, New York
15 November - 23 December 2008

I enjoyed Jerry Saltz's review of the show in New York Magazine, but added the following comment:

When I saw the show, my first thought was that Cindy Sherman was being remarkably candid in depicting her female collectors. There they all are, up on the walls of Metro, the museum trustee doyennes, oil baronesses, superannuated cowgirls, Upper East Side plastic surgery queens, sexagenarian countesses and aging Foundation goddesses who have acquired Sherman photographs over the years. Or there they all are, caricatures of what she feels we think they look like. It's an homage of sorts, a jolt of recognition, bringing things full circle. John Waters seems to agree, and has been so quoted: “It’s great to see Cindy’s pictures in the same room with some of her best subjects.”

Saltz invokes a more generous viewpoint in his peroration. After years of admittedly "steering clear" of Cindy's "weirdness", of finding her art marked by "sensationalism, caricature, gags, and melodrama", he is finally ready to embrace his inner freak and her outer Sherman, all at once. It is a stirring moment, an epiphany. Speaking for all of us, his loyal readers and her long time observers, he (inadvertently?) cites a climactic passage from the classic Tod Browning horror film, Freaks: "We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us!"

At the fabulous after diner, Saltz was overheard saying: “This is the end. It’s going to be a long while before we’ll see anything like this again.” I assume he was discussing the opulence of the dessert bar, not the work in the gallery. It is sometimes difficult to see the photography for the petit fours.

Some further comments:

French director Jean Renoir's famous statement - that he was always making the same film, that his entire oeuvre could be viewed as one continuous, multifaceted effort - is (again inadvertently?) invoked by Saltz when he states that "all of Sherman’s work can be thought of as one Ur-picture, a gigantic Dickens-Daumier library of types." An interesting conceit, as Dickens was known for serializing his novels in contemporary Victorian periodicals - further stressing the dialectic of fragmentation and unification - and that both he and Daumier deal in caricature, in observing and cataloging general dramatic or social archetypes, stock characters in a pre-Freudian, perhaps commedia del l'arte sense.

Sherman's role playing, as both subject and artist, has generally adhered to a recognizable, replicable pattern, that of advancing stereotype over specific individual traits, and using simple shorthands of costume, makeup, wigs, props, and rear projected backdrops to suggest, accumulate, layer, and signify her synthetic identities. For those who have followed her over the years, she is always recognizable in the work, even when her body is fairly well submerged in a heavily prostheticized mise-en-scene that visually resolves into deposits of mucus, phlegm, blood and vomit foregrounding a forest of plastic doll-like limbs, torsos and heads.

Sherman has certainly had gnarly or grotesque periods, but these are generally less understood and valued, less sympathetically regarded, than the "cleaner", more accessible self portraits that recall a more traditional visual history of Hollywood cinema or modern photography or fashion. Her original success, of course, is the small scale b/w Untitled Film Series, in which she dresses up in thrift store clothing and uncannily embodies a convincing panoply of postures, poses and personae: romantic heroine, housewife, waitress, starlet, vagabond, student, harpy, vixen, working girl, hipster, dreamer, femme fatale, B-girl etc. These images are so powerful, and still speak so forcefully, with such a combination of artistic ingenuity and recognizable cultural antecedent, that many observers have difficulty following Sherman past this seminal body of work. Which is too bad, considering how fundamentally she has progressed, both in the formal elements of size, color and photographic medium, but also in her theoretical concerns, in her ontology of character and semiology of display.

Saltz is much too sophisticated to fall into the trap of only celebrating the film stills, yet there is something retrograde in his championing the current photographs - as possessed of "psychological weight and empathetic power" - at the expense of the "gooniness and shtick" which he seems to find in much middle period work. The essential reasoning is that Sherman has now lived longer, and therefore has acquired greater emotional depth, more life lessons to lend to her creations, which therefore benefit from a new maturity and honesty. He celebrates the current show for its lived-in resonance.

Reducing art criticism to biography is always a danger. It leads to a series of unsatisfying tautologies. That when Sherman was herself an ingenue in the art world, she naturally made ingenue art, populated with ingenue characters, and this was fully appropriate. Now that she is mature, Sherman has "earned" the right to make mature art, and this is reflected in convincingly realized characters that seem emotionally "real". But during a vast interim, when Sherman neither benefited from incipience nor from hard won experience, her work strives for effect, is insincere, empty, overly clever and distanced, and emotionally incomplete. This unfortunate critical strategy, of playing both ends against the middle, does not really help us understand the development of a single artistic career. It divides, but does not conquer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


November 18, 2008 marked the 24th and final chapter of THE ART CRITIC, Peter Plagen's roman a clef set in the New York art world, that has been syndicated on An archive of all installments can he found here.

In Chapter 24, we find the critic in compromised straits, having lost the dream girl - the daughter of a wealthy collector and publisher who has recently purchased the very magazine where the critic publishes his writing - to a sculptor that he reviewed in that self same magazine.

We follow the critic on a brief Southwestern jaunt during which he gets all uppity about the regional cowboys-and-Indians vernacular. Upon returning to New York, he learns of the death of a female painter with whom he was close, and of a painting she left him that was discovered posthumously. The critic participates in a "Visual Culture" panel at an SVA sort of institution.

The critic learns that his article about the sculptor (to whom he lost the girl) influenced the sale of that sculptor's room-sized installation to the collector/publisher/father of the girl. The novel ends with a chance meeting between the publisher and the critic, which intends to tie up the fates of the main characters who have been threading through the narrative. Phrases like "You're cursed with integrity" and "It’s a brand new world out there" are bandied about. Finally, the critic hits the galleries, as "there were still a few exhibitions he could catch before closing time.

The End."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pipilotti Rist: Relational Aesthetician?

Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)
November 19, 2008–February 2, 2009
Museum of Modern Art, Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, second floor

Tuesday, November 18, 2008. Don't look now, but MoMA seems to be entering the Relational Aesthetics sweepstakes with their installation of Pipilotti Rist's Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters). It opens about a month after the Guggenheim's group foray into RA, theanyspacewhatever.

I missed today's press opening, but as Rist outlines the project in the attached video, she definitely envisions it as an interactive work. She wants people to "bring their bodies to the museum", to come into the huge atrium and feel "stretched". She hopes to "redirect" the institution "to the body of the visitors". Her images, loaded onto hard disk and edited into various sequences, are arranged into seven distinct programs, thrown by seven banks of video projectors, to create a seamless 25-foot-high enveloping projection that covers all four walls.

In the center of the atrium is a large round seating and lounge area, a sofa that encloses a central padded platform with additional throw pillows. Rist feels that it resembles an eye, the dark interior pupil surrounded by a larger white circle. She expects people to orient themselves in various directions and in various postures as they watch her video unfold, and cites rolling, singing and the practice of yoga asanas as particularly apt viewing responses.

The video is ten minutes long and non-narrative, condensed from an original fifty minute loop. The protagonists include one human, one pig, several earthworms and two snails, and the soundtrack - squishy, synthesized "body" sounds in addition to a more melodic portion - will be played by speakers arranged within the seating area, to better contain the work within the museum. Pour Your Body Out uses shots and sequences from a narrative feature film that Rist plans to release in 2009.


images from Ever is All Over, 1997

Ever is All Over, 1997, was the first piece by Rist that made an impression on me. This two channel video was also previously shown at MoMA. It is described on their website:

Ever Is Over All envelops viewers in two slow-motion projections on adjacent walls. In one a roving camera focuses on red flowers in a field of lush vegetation. The spellbinding lull this imagery creates harmonizes with the projection to its left, which features a woman in sparkling ruby slippers promenading down a car-lined street. The fluidity of both scenes is disrupted when the woman violently smashes a row of car windshields with the long-stemmed flower she carries. As the vandal gains momentum with each gleeful strike of her wand, an approaching police officer smiles in approval, introducing comic tension into this whimsical and anarchistic scene.

Much of the imagery and intentionality of the current installation is presaged here. The brightly colored flowers swaying in the wind. The bucolic reveries. The literal nostalgie pour la boue, bringing the camera right down to garden level to investigate the comings and goings of backyard flora or farmyard fauna in extreme close up. The use of slow motion, stop motion and particular framings or exaggerated perspectives. The equation of nature with freedom, although an evidently pixilated or quixotic freedom. The suggestion of anarchy or revolution that is dormant in nature, and that is a necessary component of creativity. A post hippie equation of society with repression, which must be shattered in the quickest and most dramatic fashion. The possibilities of aggression and destruction in an extrapolated domesticity. The potential for metamorphosis and fable in the little girl reveries of ruby red slippers, ballroom gowns, fairies, magic wands, bright clothing. Her signature colors of pink, fuschia, bright yellow, as well as clashing patterns, like tablecloths and curtains from the ur-Mitteleuropa kitchen, which are fashioned into costumes. An unashamed embrace of the corny and the carny, of Revenge of the Nerds meets Trickster Rabbit on the Yellow Brick Road. Pist's persona - whimsical, elvish, naughty, inquisitive, meddling - that is generally kept offscreen, but still invades every moment of the videos. She reigns as the unseen but omnipresent figure of her production.

More on this when I have time to develop a new thread.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Comments on "Seven Days in the Art World"

My comments on Seven Days in the Art World, a new book by Sarah Thornton published by W. W. Norton, appear below the cover image. They were first posted online in a thread on the book on Artworld Salon.

He said, she said. When Ms. Thornton indicates she "worked hard to gain access" I do believe her. She seems to have established first name basis, in relatively short order, with a whole slew of movers and shakers, from auction house honchos to art dealers, from globe hopping curators to critics and academics, from magazine editors to museum directors, from artists to collectors.

She managed to accompany LA gallerists Blum and Poe on a dense travelogue through Murakami's five Japanese studios. She attended the Venice Biennale with an enviable portfolio of events, parties and contacts under her arm. She scored a freelance gig at in the process of writing her chapter on the magazine's print edition. That's what I call deep penetration! (The chant from Tod Browning's film Freaks comes to mind: ""We accept her! We accept her! One of us! One of us!") Although she modestly downplays her game with a throwaway social science-ism - "Participation seemed to be the only way to enable observation." - proving that, yes, she is a trained sociologist. But beyond native intelligence and determination, very good writing skills and (quite likely) a certain charm, might it have been the imprimatur of a W. W. Norton publication, a tell-all book about the contemporary art world? Could this have opened doors? I would love to know her secret.

Ossian's phrase, "in thrall to the art world and not nearly critical or even conclusive enough", is true to the extent that one imagines journalists embedded with the US Army in Iraq as somewhat compromised in their coverage of the war by the very aegis of military protection. The international art scene is no less a minefield than Anbar Province. One needs a guide to make introductions, to smooth one's way through the various sheikdoms, and to cover one's back from both hostile and "friendly" fire. Does this dependency strain the bounds of objectivity? To paraphrase William Jefferson Clinton, that all depends on what "objectivity" is.

The book is a quick, enjoyable but not overly light read. There are not that many revelations, but rather a pervading tone of measured observation, a commonsense approach that profits from diligent research, accurate reportage, lots of relevant interview material, and a commendable ability to collate and cross reference sources. She has done her homework, and it shows. For example, a casual aside from someone in a corridor of academe can later wind up illustrating or elaborating a tendency at an art fair or a studio visit.

I felt myself on familiar but well prepared ground, often nodding along with Thornton. She has a keen eye and the ability to quickly define a situation or characterize an individual with a few swift establishing strokes. This is an invaluable skill in journalism or exposé, the essential genre of Seven Days in the Art World. So when she encapsulates Knight Landesman as "always dressed in primary colors" and "treating advertising sales as if they were performance art", or describes the Rubells as "wearing running shoes and baggy trousers with pockets and toggles in unlikely places", as well as the family's customary huddle when making decisions before a purchase, I can only say "Amen. Been there, seen that." Would her observations be as resonant with someone who did not already know the territory? This I cannot say.

As to the central conceit, that we are reading about seven days in the art trenches rather than five years of participant/observer status, I suppose it is metaphors like this that satisfy a need for Aristotelian unity. But regarding Ossian's desire for a conclusion, I wonder whether it's possible or even advisable at this point, especially with changing economic conditions, uncertainty, and also the continuing proliferation of players and institutions in the international art scrum. I am inclined to agree with Thornton that Seven Days is "the fieldwork".

An excerpt from a BBC interview:

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Jerry's Night at the Guggenheim

Jerry Saltz was allowed an overnight stay at the Guggenheim Museum in the context of theanyspacewhatever exhibition, which I have previously discussed on these pages, but have not yet seen.

My comments below were first posted online in response to his review of the exhibition, and the experience, in New York Magazine.

I have not yet seen theanyspacewhatever, but that did not stop me from characterizing it, several weeks ago, after reading and hearing various accounts, as not just tepid RA (relational aesthetics) but essentially MT (empty). Feel free to consult my blog entries:

and here.

Jerry agrees that the show is thin, that it does not successfully encompass RA. I'm sorry Roberta wasn't there to share his sleepover, but she had already published her New York Times review of the show on Halloween. Jerry seems to have experienced his own horror film epiphanies, like "the last man on earth" and "things that go bump in the night". The whirrs, echoes, and clanking or gulping air filters represent non-human machinations at the Guggenheim. As to its human machinations, I'm sad to report these are often a conflation of privilege and pettiness.

Is there a sly co-optation in being allowed to spend a night at the museum, a bestowal of institutional intimacy and familiarity only awarded to those with power, connections, influence or the right sort of money? What it seems to have provoked in Jerry is an amalgamation of insomnia and naughty transgression, even without the sex. Still, it did not alter his opinion that, in this first US survey of RA, much was lost.

So, would my actually entering the museum and seeing the show alter my opinion? Probably not. But should I ever go, I promise to get back to you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bush Takes Lame Duck Aim at Spiral Jetty?

By an executive order ironically announced on Election Day, the Bush administration opened up 360,000 acres of land in Utah to oil and natural gas drilling, scheduled to begin in December. One can only begin to wonder about the favors being paid back by this lame duck cowboy wannabee, and the harm he can still do as his powers diminish and his days are waning. It recalls Saruman in Lord of the Rings: even after he is dethroned and banished from his fortress, he still harbors enough residual malice to ravage the Shire.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management did not publish details of the 241 proposed parcels, but some are believed to be near national parks and monuments such as Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. While much of the land up for lease by the government to oil and gas interests includes areas considered worthy of wilderness status, it is also possible that Spiral Jetty is threatened.

The incoming Obama administration has given indications they will reverse this executive order and bar the drilling once they assume power. It would indicate they are a friend of the environment, of the arts, and of Spiral Jetty. Robert Smithson's earthwork, perhaps the seminal and certainly the best known project of late 1960s land art, is situated on the northern shore of Utah's Great Salt Lake and has become a Rozel Point of contention (pun intended). On one side is Smithson's widow, the artist Nancy Holt, as well as the Dia Art Foundation, the art world in general, and various environmental organizations. On the other side is the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Public Lands Policy Coordinating Office, and a wildcat oil company based in Canada that wants to begin "exploratory" drilling just a few miles away.

I covered the story on these pages back in February, when a frenzied letter writing campaign to save the Jetty enjoined an initial attempt to drill baby drill. Also available at:

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Art in the New Nation of Obama

First the victory speech, in three parts (it can be clicked through), for anyone who went to bed early last night.

The right guy won last night, in my opinion the only possible guy. A McCain/Palin administration was unthinkable. I heard a number of people say they would move to Australia or Canada in such an eventuality. Then again, many spoke similarly before four years of Bush Père and eight years of W. Despite the suffering brought on by the Republicans - the wars, the sagging economy, the unilateral invasions, the stupid arrogance and secrecy, the lies and doublethink, the alienation of the US in world diplomacy, the hideous, hateful partisanship - America is amazingly resilient.

Obama has brilliantly revealed this. When he declared his candidacy in 2007, my first impulse was to consider it premature. That he was doomed to failure. That despite his obvious charisma, competence and compassion, America was still too racist to elect a President of color. I am nothing short of jubilant that he has proven me wrong. That he has jolted us to transcend all the pettiness and hate.

Obama is supremely eloquent, a master orator. He can bring his audience to tears or to plateaus of joyful expectation. But his is also a stern presence, promising that his election is just the beginning, that it will be a long, uphill battle to reclaim the promise of America. He might be a former professor of constitutional law, but also has the demeanor, the glare and righteousness, of a fire and brimstone preacher. Or of a strict father, whose approval we seek above all else.

His thesis - that we must all work together, burying the habitual immaturity, self indulgence and slackness, is a refreshing slap in the face, a slap that could well reverberate throughout the art world. And not just in the obvious realms of public and political art, which would by necessity address imperatives of a newly energized, engaged society. But also in general art praxis, where boring, obscure, self referential, slacker ironies would not so much be outlawed as just seem laughably empty, ridiculously lame, inappropriate. This is not to suggest that art under Obama would be humorless or politically didactic, or would revert to a neo-WPA socialist realism to greet the New Depression. Rather that some of the nonsense would fall away naturally, finally revealed as bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant.


Art that is “bloated, top heavy, pretentious and irrelevant” has in fact been here for some time. However, the watershed event of Obama’s election, and of his candidacy being fairly unanimously and enthusiastically embraced by the art world (at least here in New York, but I assume across the country), tends to make explicit what was once implicit. It brings things to a head.

I am not suggesting the incoming president, nor his yet to be appointed cultural czar, will be setting the agenda for art practice and content. Merely that the art world does not exist in a vacuum. That exposure to and advocacy of larger political and economic concerns might lend a note of “clarity and quality of vision” (as per Ian). It could well invigorate, change tolerances, allow for a certain impatience with prevailing self indulgence or banality.

This is not a top-down model, of politically correct art being vetted by a new administration in Washington. But with the economy in the tank, the ordeal of a hotly contested election just behind us, and the promise of greater challenges and trials yet to come, it would be ostrich-like to ignore the effect this will most likely have in our not so insulated precincts of art.


It’s good to see some spirited debate. But has this thread become a moratorium on the failure of art criticism? An interesting topic, to be sure, but not the original one. Let me add that, while several AWS contributors hold jobs as critics, criticism is not actually published on this site. Here we seem to deal with the meta-. To borrow from the political arena, and for lack of a better word, here we are “pundits”. In any case, I would agree that “criticism is a symptom, not the sickness”.

The original open ended query was how a new administration might influence the arts in America in terms of praxis, policy, institutions, priorities, moods - the zeitgeist, if you will. It should be obvious that no one suggested aesthetics be mandated by any government, whether in Washington or more locally. And I imagine the new administration might have a few things on its plate before arts policy comes up. Although we often hear the bailout money loaned to banks might be invested in repairing a decaying infrastructure of roads, bridges, schools and other public works. It smells a bit like FDR’s New Deal, putting Americans to work for America. In that case, I wonder about a 2008 equivalent to the old WPA that would put artists to work, and the political baggage, “correctness” or otherwise, that might accompany the government in an expanded role as patron of the arts.

In their debates, Obama and McCain argued over strategies for streamlining the federal budget, for pruning programs that don’t work. There were dueling metaphors. McCain wanted to use an axe, Obama a scalpel. Both are good sculptors tools, and both are subtractive; after their use, you wind up with something physically (if not aesthetically) less. The new administration, acknowledging the shrinking economy, has fronted with notions of pragmatism and austerity, a new elegance and modesty of means, a new spirit of sacrifice. They will start out by eliminating a lot of “bloated, top heavy” programs.

Art, mostly made and sold in the private sector, will undoubtedly follow suit, if only due to economic necessity. Even should there be money to support the physical creation of certain fatuous and self indulgent work, a decimated customer base will soon winnow out the excesses. There will be a cleaning of the stables. And to continue the metaphor, some of the stables themselves will need to close their doors.

But the real question is whether the effect on the art world will only be economically determined, or whether the government will set a tone that trickles down. I obviously support the latter contention. Art is not created in a vacuum, and responds to a larger political regime, sometimes in accord, sometimes in opposition, frequently in ways that cannot be predicted. To use one of Catherine’s words, art in America feeds “opportunistically” at a larger social and cultural table, where it receives education, information, news, theory, idle chatter, jargon, rumor … as well as funding.

(These texts originally appeared in an Artworld Salon thread on changing practices in the art world under an Obama administration.)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Clueless Sarah Palin Pranked by a Faux Sarkozy

This story has spread all over the internet, but from the International Herald Tribune (among many sources) comes word that Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin was successfully misled by two comedians last Saturday into thinking she was speaking with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Known as "The Masked Avengers", the Canadian duo, Sébastien Trudel and Marc-Antoine Audette of CKOI, a radio station in Montreal, have pulled similar stunts on Mick Jagger, Bill Gates, Britney Spears, Jacques Chirac, Tiger Woods, and even on Sarkozy himself. But this was their coup de grace: pranking an already questionable candidate who would be the first female VP - just a heartbeat away from having her finger on the nuclear trigger - on the very eve of a hotly contested US presidential election. It casts further doubt on her judgment and readiness to assume important responsibilities.

Despite the use of a very exaggerated Parisian accent (on the verge of Pepé Le Pew), broad parody and many other obvious clues, inaccuracies and in-jokes planted throughout the six minute phone conversation, Governor Palin never realizes the trick until being told at the end, after which one of her assistants terminates the call.

Some of the very obvious tip-offs that Palin misses:

The "aide" to Sarkozy identifies himself as "Frank l'Ouvrier", or "Frank the Worker", a French twist on "Joe the Plumber".

"Sarkozy" says he also likes to hunt: "I just love killing those animals. Mmmm Mmmm. Taking away life, that is so fun!" He interjects a quick aside in French about "killing baby seals", and indicates he has never before gone hunting from a helicopter, but would be happy to accompany her. But he pointedly requests that Dick Cheney, of the misfired rifle incident, not come along. Laughter from Palin. "No, I'll be a careful shot," she promises.

"Sarkozy" indicates he has closely followed the U.S. election through his special advisor "Johnny Hallyday," the French Elvis. He goes on to say how unfair it is that Palin has been labeled as not experienced in foreign relations, and then cites his good friend, "Canadian Prime Minister Stef Carse", actually a pop country singer from Quebec. Palin detects nothing. She merely chirps on about international cooperation, rushing to hit one of her rehearsed talking points.

"Sarkozy" becomes ironic: "I got elected in France because I am real, and you seem to be someone who is real as well". She doesn't get the joke.

He goes on: "You know, I see you as a President one day, you too!" Palin laughs nervously, then chirps: "Maybe in eight years".

"Sarkozy": "You know we have a lot in common, because from my house I can see Belgium! That is perhaps less interesting than you!"

Referring to his wife Carla Bruni as "so hot in bed", "Sarkozy" says that Bruni (also a pop singer) has written something for Palin, entitled "Du rouge a levres sur une cochonne" (Lipstick on a Pig), "or if you prefer in English, Joe the Plumber". He then says that he doesn't get the whole Joe the Plumber thing. "That's not your husband, right?"

"Sarkozy": "I must say I loved that documentary they made of your life. You know Hustler's Nailin' Paylin?" - referring to an adult film put out by Larry Flynt with a lookalike porn actress - "That was really edgy!"

After so many dead give aways and cheeky affronts go by without detection or objection, there is nothing left but to inform Palin that she has been pranked. Throughout the conversation, rather than having any presence of mind, she has been uncritical, fawning, obsequious - "John McCain and I love you so much!" - and eager to hit the standard Republican talking points. Her attitude seems less suited to two world leaders talking, and more like a student hitting prepared points in an oral quiz. "Sarkozy" continually interrupts her in mid-sentence to deliver zinger after zinger, not one of which registers with her as false or alerts her to the prank.

Daily Kos posted a transcript of the call.

Palin's office has issued the following statement: "Governor Palin received a phone call on Saturday from a French Canadian talk show host claiming to be French President Nicholas Sarkozy. Governor Palin was mildly amused to learn that she had joined the ranks of heads of state, including President Sarkozy, and other celebrities in being targeted by these pranksters. C'est la vie."

To which I would rejoin: "Peut etre c'est la vie. Mais ce n'est pas ma VP!"

This video from the back lot of Nailin' Paylin was once available on YouTube. As the election approaches, there has apparently been some damage control.