jueves, 30 de junio de 2016

David Hockney Opens Up About the Tragedy that Triggered His Return to Portraiture

David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts (c) David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts.
David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts. ©David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts.
British artist and septuagenarian David Hockney has never been one for predictability. The outspoken artist is about to turn 79, and next year’s retrospective at the Tate will showcase the ceaseless experimentation that has spanned throughout his career.
But the series of portraits that will be exhibited to the public at the Royal Academy from July 2 captures a very specific time in the artist’s life.
Rufus Hale, 23rd, 24th, 25th November 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.
Rufus Hale, 23rd, 24th, 25th November 2015 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
Over the last three years, the Royal Academician has returned his focus to portraiture, producing an astonishing body of work. Each of the 82 portraits that make up the series were composed in his Los Angeles studio, where Hockney retreated after the accidental death of his young assistant and close friend Dominic Elliot in 2013, at the artist’s home in Bridlington.
In an interview with the BBC’s Will Gompertz, Hockney speaks of the depression and creative difficulties he had following the incident. “That was a terrible shock, I mean a terrible thing. I didn’t do much work for a while, I mean I just… I drew the garden.”
John Baldessari, 13th, 16th December, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.
John Baldessari, 13th, 16th December, 2013 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
After a long silence, Hockney managed to create a portrait of his studio assistant and friend, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima (JP), which became the first portrait of the series. It captures JP, who was equally devastated by Elliot’s death, sitting inconsolable, head buried in his hands. The painting seems to have been cathartic as it prompted a reignited Hockney to create the series.
This is not surprising, as time and again we have seen key moments in Hockney’s life prompt an emotional response in his work. Whether it’s painful break ups, the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s, or personal grief, portraiture seems to be somewhat of a sanctuary for the artist.
David Juda, 22nd, 23rd, 25th March 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.
David Juda, 22nd, 23rd, 25th March 2015 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
The rest of the portraits are of Hockney’s family and friends, and each conveys a sense of the personality of the sitters that can only be borne from intimacy. Each subject was invited by the artist to sit for him, and those depicted include John Baldessari, Larry Gagosian, Frank Gehry, and Lord Rothschild, as well as Hockney’s siblings, John and Margaret.
Rita Pynoos, 1st, 2nd March 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.
Rita Pynoos, 1st, 2nd March 2014 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
Looked at together, there are visual similarities in all of the pieces: each subject is captured in swatches of bright colours on canvases of the same size, each sitter is painted in the same chair, and each work relays an uncanny dual sense of looking through both one’s own, and Hockney’s, eyes.
But the similarity ends there. Although they might all be colored by Hockney’s perspective, each sitter also manages to preserve their own internal life the viewer doesn’t quite have access to.
Jacob Rothschild, 5th, 6th February 2014 (©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
Jacob Rothschild, 5th, 6th February 2014 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
Hockney considers all 82 portraits and the still life to make up a single body of work. The series, according to the artist, is about how “we’re all individuals. That’s what it tells us. That we’re different on the outside, we’re different on the inside.”
Barry Humphries, 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 x 91.4 cm © David Hockney Photo: Richard Schmidt.
Barry Humphries, 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015 ©David Hockney. Photo Richard Schmidt.
David Hockney “82 Portraits and 1 Still-Life” is currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from 2 July-2 October, 2016.

miércoles, 29 de junio de 2016

Sotheby’s London’s $69 Million Contemporary Sale Passes Brexit Test With Flying Colors

Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989) Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Sotheby’s presented a slightly sterner test for the post-Brexit art market than Phillips the night before with a 47-lot sale that totaled $69.4 million (£52.2 million) with a very healthy 40 of 46 lots sold. The top lot, and a big surprise of the night, was the record $9 million (£6.8 million) for Jenny Saville’s large, square painting, Shift (1996-7), which featured naked women squashed together like sardines, that was shown at Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition, “Sensation” show in 1997.
The sale surpassed its presale estimate of $47–67 million (£35.5–50.2 million) with flying colors. (Sold prices include buyer’s premium commission, estimates do not.) And although Sotheby’s was without any eight-figure lots this time around, they secured 18 works with estimates in excess of $1.5 million (£1 million).
Last year Sotheby’s had a much weightier sale with 57 lots that realized $205 million (£130.4 million), though that was below the estimate. This year, the estimate was the lowest for a June sale since 2009.
“It was not easy to put the sale together,” said Alex Branczik, head of contemporary art Europe. But the total of $69.4 million (£52.2 million) not only hit the high estimate, it exceeded the June 2010 total as well. In other words, it looks like we are back to the beginning of the most recent boom.
Jenny Saville, Shift (1996-97) Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Jenny Saville, Shift (1996-97). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Of the 40 lots sold, 26 sold at hammer prices within or above the estimates. From that standpoint, it was business as usual, albeit with less lots.
The top price of the night was widely expected to be for Sigmar Polke’s large colourful fabric painting, Red Fish (1992), once owned by Frieder Burda, but the $5.5 million (£3.5 million) estimate was high for a late work by the artist and it sold below estimate for $4.9 million (£3.1 million), including commission, to an Asian collector.
Considering the economic climate and the sale at Phillips yesterday, it was to be expected that owners were prepared to reduce their reserve prices, but there were surprisingly few examples—just eight—selling below estimates.
Another was Cy Twombly’s small Untitled (Roma) (1961), which sold to Michael McGinnis of the Mnuchin Gallery for $1.1 million (£701,000).
The $2–3 million (£1.5–2 million) estimate intimated that the previous $3.3 million (£2.1 million) record could be broken, but even Sotheby’s staff were surprised when three telephone bidders, and Saville’s dealer, Larry Gagosian, on his cell phone, took the bidding into unknown territory. Finally Gagosian succumbed to the greater ambitions of Wang Wei, the Chinese collector buying for her Long Museum in Shangahi, which is about to stage an exhibition devoted to female artists of the West.
Asian bidders were a powerful force tonight, buying two other works in the sale’s top  lots. A 1955 mobile by Alexander Calder sold above estimate for $3 million (£1.9 million), and Adrian Ghenie’s large interior, The Hunted,  sold for a multiple estimate $2.5 million (£1.9 million).
This was one of several works by Ghenie coming up for sale this week that were acquired in 2011 through the Haunch of Venison gallery, which helped to launch the artist’s career in the west—at the time selling such paintings for around $40,000 (£20,000).
Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989) Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Keith Haring, The Last Rainforest (1989). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The second major record was for a work billed as Keith Haring’s “last great masterpiece,” his eight-foot, intricately and fantastically illustrated tarpaulin painting, The Last Rainforest, 1989, from the collection of star photograper David La Chapelle who is reportedly selling it because he doesn’t have the right space for it in his new home in the Hawaian rainforest.
The painting carried an estimate of $2.7—4 million (£2—3 million), so was in range of the record $4.9 million paid for an equally large tarpaulin work in 2014, but sold for $5.5 million (£4.2 million) to an American collector.
Two of the higher estimated lots had come from a private European collection which had acquired them at auction. As usual, this allows for insightful price comparisons.
Warhol’s Four Marilyns from the “Reversal” series, 1986, had been acquired in 1999 for $299,500. We hardly need reminding how that market has moved since then, but this example, estimated at $800,000 to $1 million (£600–800,000), sold to an anonymous phone bidder, who outbid US collector David Rogath, for a final price of $3.8 million (£2.9 million).
Zeng Fanzhi, Jenny Saville, Self Portrait (1996) Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Zeng Fanzhi, Self Portrait (1996). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Also from a private European collection, but telling a different story, was a Zeng Fanzhi self-portrait which US collectors Howard and Patricia Farber sold extremely advantageously in Hong Kong in 2011 for HK$37.6 million (£2.9 million). Tonight it took a loss selling for $2.7 million (£2 million).
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (2006). Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Nets (2006). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Also experiencing high returns was a 2006 version of Yayoi Kusama‘s Infinity Nets series of paintings, including one bought by a Swedish collector in 2010 for $85,000 (£63,650). Now estimated at $266—400,000 (£200—300,000) it sold for a double estimate $901,000 (£677,000).
A towering and evocative Gunther Forg abstract from 1987 was bought by the dealer Max Hetzler in New York in 2012, the year before Forg died, for $34,375. Hetzler sold it on, but today it sold again at auction for $437,000 (£329,000).
It was an unproductive night for Gagosian. Apart from his client losing out on the Saville, he also emerged as the unsuccessful underbidder for a colourful abstract by another of his artists, Howard Hodgkin, which sold near the high estimate for $870,000 (£653,000).
Jean Dubuffet Barbe de lumiere dwa aveugles (1959). Courtesy of Sotheby's.
Jean Dubuffet Barbe de lumiere des aveugles (1959). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The postwar sector was led by Jean Dubuffet, for whom demand is clearly on the rise. After a rare ‘beard’ painting by the artist sold at Phillips in May for $3.1 million, Sotheby’s found another slightly larger one, and sold it for an even better $4.2 million (£3.2 million) which was double the estimate.
If there were any visible weaknesses tonight, it was in the market for Italian artist, Enrico Castellani, whose prices have been spiralling upwards recently. But tonight, two shaped canvases went unsold with estimates between $465,000 to $2.4 million (£350,000 to 1.8 million).
They did not, however, dent the euphoria that had engulfed the saleroom, partly in relief that the art market had shown total resilience to the political and economic mayhem which the Brexit vote has set in motion. Maybe buyers were encouraged by the rallying stock market, and even the low pound. But one senses Branczik was right when he stated that this was “beyond currency”.

martes, 28 de junio de 2016

When Art Spills Beyond Its Curatorial Frames

Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street (installation view). The Studio Museum in Harlem. Photo: Adam Reich
Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street (installation view). The Studio Museum in Harlem. (all photos by Adam Reich, courtesy the Studio Museum, unless otherwise noted)
There has been a good deal of conversation in the last few years around the subject of Congressional district gerrymandering, a process by which the boundaries of an electoral constituency are manipulated to favor a political party or a class. This talk has been popular because gerrymandering subverts our representative democracy, and it is a precursor for ethnic and class-based disfranchisement. In visual art too, represented ideas can have rhetorical boundaries drawn around them to oblige a particular reading while other aspects of the work are ignored. The exhibitions, Rodney McMillian: Views of Main Street, at the Studio Museum in Harlem and at MoMA PS1 feel like gerrymandered shows, though one is much less so than the other. They are both exhibitions where I’m staggered by the power of the artist’s work, but find that the didactic text attempts to limit my responses to obvious and restricted readings of McMillian’s work — full of signifiers that reference domesticity, race, and class, and more.
Take McMillian’s important “Chair” (2003) at the Studio Museum. It’s just that, only a chair — dirty and disheveled and listing to one side because of two broken legs, with the upholstery and supports all undone and exposed. You look at it long enough and your eyes may start to burn and the heart in your chest feel heavier for all the weight of that devastated object that you now want to relieve. You want to pick it up because it’s broken, and being broken, it’s an apt metaphor for everything else dwelling in urban environments that seems damaged or abandoned: infrastructure, people, institutions, entire neighborhoods. McMillian’s chair stinks of urban blight, so much so one can hardly look at it without thinking of the moment (if you remember it) that then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx to tag it as a poster child of governmental failure. With all its historical significance and abject appearance, “Chair” is a work that might break you.
Rodney McMillian, "Chair" (installation view), 2003. Photo: Adam Reich
Rodney McMillian, “Chair” (2003) (installation view)
Taking up the theme of political and social disfranchisement, the curator, Naima Keith, describes the exhibition’s theme as conveying that “the domestic sphere … is far from a site of belonging. It functions instead as a space where the wear and tear of hard-earned possessions become a powerful metaphor for continued racial and class prejudices.” But this is an impoverished reading.
The work also has to do with the passage of time and the nature of personal use and what we value as worth preserving, and clearly, the implications of belonging to someone. A chair is an intimate object that holds your body off the ground, takes your weight, thus allowing one to have moments where the responsibility for holding the body up is abdicated. A chair signifies repose within a particular, historicized epoch and notion of civilization, and the broken version of this object should not be limited to reading it through the valences of race and class. Indeed that worn linoleum and carpet of “Untitled” (2006) and “Untitled” (2011) suggest that domesticity is a kind of simultaneous wearing away of the substrate, and an accumulation of signs (stains and tears) that indicate use by a particular set of people in a particular time.
Rodney McMillian “Untitled (refrigerator)” 2009. Photo courtesy the Orange County Museum of Art and Bliss Photography
Rodney McMillian, “Untitled (refrigerator)” (2009). (photo courtesy the Orange County Museum of Art and Bliss Photography)

Tactile Performances that Probe the Body and Its Aging

Stephen Petronio rendition of “The Courtesan and the Crone” by Anna Halprin (2016), exhibition detail from ‘Ally,’ produced in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño; all images courtesy of the artists and the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia)
PHILADELPHIA — Ally, an exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, is a collaboration between artist Janine Antoni, choreographer Stephen Petronio, and movement artist and activist Anna Halprin. The result of years of cross-country rehearsals, the exhibition uses ephemera, performance, and soundscapes to perform a real-time study of the materiality of objects and the effects of the aging body.
The first performance I saw was a version of Halprin’s 1999 work “The Courtesan and the Crone,” reworked for the museum’s mostly concrete, tunnel-like seventh floor gallery. Halprin created the work at age 79 to address her own aging, changing body, and tenets of traditional (white and Eurocentric) female beauty. For Ally, Petronio takes on this role of the coy, elegant courtesan, expanding the embodiment of the character across gender lines. A tattered, red curtain lied on the far end of the space as Petronio slinked through, his face initially covered by an ornate mask. With a series of simple gestures indicating a conventionally feminine physicality — subtle shoulder rolls, the grabbing of a breast, a foot slipping into a pair of high heels — Petronio conjured a mystique that was both beautiful and grotesque, a female form in peril, trying to reclaim any sense of youthful exuberance while time moved against her.
It was not until Petronio gingerly peeled off his satin gloves, however, that it was evident this body was not what we thought it was. Exposing hairy knuckles and tattooed fingers, the shedding of this persona marked a potent reveal. There was something haunting in this image: a highly masculine-appearing performer engulfed in a persona that was not only flirtatious and decidedly feminine, but an examination of the standards women are held to in order to appear youthful and attractive. The male performer was the femme object; as he shed layers of his costume — dress, headpiece and, finally, mask — the materials of the performance set appeared to break down. The red curtain lowered and a sand bag descended, showing the pulley mechanism that often holds curtains aloft. At the end of the performance, Petronio hung his coat on the floating sandbag and sauntered off, effectively leaving the realization of this artifice behind him.
Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, Stephen Petronio, “Rope Dance” (2015) (photo by and © Hugo Glendinning)
On the museum’s ground floor, “Rope Dance” offered a participatory experience. Centered on a thin rope, designed expressly for this exhibition by employees of the Fabric Workshop and Museum, the performance required the full engagement of its participants. After removing our shoes and being given a pair of headphones, we were met by a video projection of Halprin, filmed in 2014 at her California home (where she still resides at age 95). The camera remained centered on her face as it reacted subtly and steadily, as if she were recounting the day’s happenings to herself or coming upon a fresh memory. At first, Halprin appeared alone; her occasional slight smile or small gasp unexpectedly added up to an entirely engrossing experience. We later found Halprin was watching Antoni and Petronio rehearse. We were watching her watch them and this experience, incredibly intimate and personal, lead into the live component of the piece she was watching, “Rope Dance.”
Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, Stephen Petronio, “Rope Dance” (2015)
Petronio acted as the leader, unraveling the rope in a wide pattern across the floor as Antoni sat blindfolded on a chair close by. By his cue, she arose and used her feet to trace pathways along the rope, remaining attached to its gentle curves and small shifts. Even after Antoni removed the blindfold, Petronio was in charge, effectively guiding their interaction and presenting to us the rules of this game. He offered directives like “unravel” and “coil in” as both remained, quite literally, tethered by the rope, wrapping it around their waists, securing it around a wrist, or knotting it around their necks. Antoni and Petronio eventually brought audience members into the fold, handing them ends of rope to take as their own.
It was a curious experience, at times coming off as an activity from a freeform dance class, at others creating a complex, and quite intricate, matrix of rope choreographies. There were giggles and mistakes, but we all had the rope to tether us so we knew, ultimately, we’d remain safe. Petronio instructed the participants to “find an ending” and, though we were all tangled inside, no one was eager to break free. The performance concluded by returning to the close-up footage of Halprin’s face. The video reminded me of Halprin’s looming presence as equal author of this exhibition, and, as we filtered out, my attention diverted to the intimate details of her expression: how her left eye tears more than her right, her laugh lines, the way years have colored her teeth and skin, and I could not help but think of the beautiful bond she had encouraged among us.
Paper Dance
Janine Antoni in collaboration with Anna Halprin, “Paper Dance” (2013) (photo by Pak Han at the Halprin Dance Deck) (click to enlarge)
The looming presence of Halprin was most compellingly used in “Paper Dance.” Largely inspired by Halprin’s 1965 work “Parades and Changes,” the work found Antoni engaged in a fascinating duet with a long roll of butcher paper. The paper, at once strong and malleable, became a tool for Antoni to reveal her sculptural prowess. There were moments where she allowed the paper to settle in its natural movements, as when it formed a cocoon and her body became engulfed by paper walls. Antoni also asserted agency, as when she stuffed the paper’s crumpled remnants into an overstretched shirt (somehow, the paper didn’t rip).
Imagery came through here in disjointed cues, constantly retuning my perceptive abilities. Was she birthing this paper as she pushed it through her straddled legs? Was she shoving the paper into her mouth, ears, and belly button as a means to plug or conceal? How was this paper able to inhabit so many roles at once: costumes, shelter, partner, set piece? My mind filled in these voids, and Antoni, remaining generous and constantly checking in with the audience with a gaze both soft and deliberate, showed these many possibilities over the course of her hour-long performance.
All the while, Antoni’s own history as a visual artist was called to our attention. We sat on crates marked “fragile” that bore the addresses of various galleries who represent her. At the beginning of the performance, she removed “Mom and Dad,” her haunting triptych of family portraits created in 1994, from one of the crates. For the duration of the exhibition, Antoni will display and restore artworks each week, allowing “Paper Dance” to be both performance and ephemeral retrospective. The act provokes an additional layer regarding labor: the work of packaging art, the care in ensuring it’s delivered safely, the physical effort required in its unpacking, and here, now, the energy required in the performance of it. At the end of “Paper Dance,” the paper is completely torn and disheveled; it, too, appears exhausted.
Janine Antoni in collaboration with Anna Halprin, “Paper Dance” (2013), April 20, 2016, performance view from ‘Ally,’ produced in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño)
“Swallow” presented a decidedly meta take on the ideas presented in Ally. The fourth-floor gallery space was drenched in a hue of red-pink light, and set up to emphasize the deep corridor it illuminates. A 10-foot strip of fabric woven by museum staff lead to the room’s focal point: an elevated gold reliquary. Along that journey we encountered chairs sitting beneath speakers mounted on the ceiling, each playing the words of a different character in this mysterious underworld. We were swallowed by their stories that described the previous performances of Antoni and Petronio. The Listener, a professorial type, asks: “What is the nature of a relationship? What’s involved in trying to create a ‘we’?” The Mole, who had a male-sounding husky voice, explained, “They had to concentrate. They needed each other.” The questions and statements inspire the audience to react and consider what we’ve witnessed, and offer a quiet space to engage in this reflection. It’s an intriguing way to consider Petronio and Antoni’s performances while honoring the many viewpoints a presumed audience has.
Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio, “Swallow” (2016), exhibition detail from ‘Ally,’ produced in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum (photo by Carlos Avendaño)
All of this brought me back to Halprin’s ghostly presence in each room, how her concepts come to life in all of the artworks on view. Floating through the four parts of Ally, I was reminded that we are never completely isolated in our perceptions of the world, in art and otherwise. We are always settled with others, inside multiple histories and contexts. Ally crafts these connections as inevitable, and shows how it’s possible across artistic mediums, gender, and generations to honor these many invisible presences.
Ally continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch St, Philadelphia) through July 31. 

lunes, 27 de junio de 2016

The 9th Berlin Biennale: A Vast Obsolescent Pageant of Irrelevance

Anna Uddenburg, “Transit Mode–Abenteuer” (2014–16), installation view (all images courtesy of Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art; all photos by Timo Ohler unless noted)
BERLIN — New York fashion collective DIS utterly dis-appoints, dis-integrating the Berlin Biennale, what was once one of Europe’s most socially engaged and politicized biennales, into a bricolage of ahistorical rubbish, second-rate post-internet aesthetics, and crass co-branding opportunities. The exhibition, The Present in Drag, includes work from 50 “artists,” set across five sites, supported by an overwhelming number of brands and product placements that it is what philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin would have likely described as an exoskeleton of late Western capitalism. 
Between 1927 and 1940, when Benjamin wrote the fragments that would later become The Arcades Project, he envisaged how, during the late 19th century, European ideas relating to technology and consumerism were beginning to lead to extreme social regression, which he connected to industrial capitalism, the First and Second World Wars, totalitarianism, and genocide. In his ambitious and unfinished project, which can be applied not just to the 19th century but also to the present day, including this year’s Berlin Biennale, Benjamin mapped out how the grounds of modernity, bound to the mythical ideas of progress and technology, foster a sense of alienation. In doing so, the emergence of “arcades,” as Benjamin defined them — literally the structures that created passageways through blocks of buildings lined with stores and shops, which first appeared in Paris during its transformation under Seine Department Prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann — formed new liminal spaces that created false indexes of public freedom bound to social dreams of utopia.
BB9 visual element, 3D design by Filip Setmanuk (2016) (photo by Natasha Goldenberg)
BB9 visual element, 3D design by Filip Setmanuk (2016) (photo by Natasha Goldenberg) (click to enlarge)
The arcades of 19th-century Paris, though billed as free and open public spaces, were in reality just marketplaces for the materialization of commodity fetishism, mass spectacle, and desire. Rather than the flâneur, the strolling figure of the new city and urban environment described by Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin dubbed this the emergence of a new “spectatorial mass.” And rather than producing actual unification of peoples, Benjamin’s spectatorial mass exacerbated the reality of class difference vis-à-vis commodity fetishism, shopping, leisure, flânerie, self-display, and hyper-individualization.
Nearly a century later, many of Benjamin’s ideas still apply. In truth, the spectatorial mass of the 19th century is now abetted by the glittering light and constant digital feedback of the Internet, where today’s arcades and boulevards, once illuminated by streetlights above, now pulsate down an information superhighway lined with social media, online shopping, the “sharing” economy, leisure, and, ultimately, digital alienation.
The ninth Berlin Biennale opened to the public on June 3, 2016, curated by highfalutin fashion collective DIS, a media entity that seems more concerned with upcycling art-world trend reports, cyber-utopianism, digital flânerie, and looking cool in Slavoj Zizek t-shirts than in curating anything that could remotely be considered a serious, relevant, or important exhibition of contemporary art.
The exhibition is set across five sites: the Akademie der Künste, the ESMT European School of Management, the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, The Feuerle Collection, and a Blue Star sightseeing boat. The artifacts, tactics, surfaces, and experiences found in these locations attest to an endless interplay of apathy and irony.
Indeed, since the announcement in 2014 that DIS — composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro — were to be curators for BB9, speculation has run rampant that one of the continent’s most vital institutions of contemporary art would be transformed into a marketing gimmick of “post-Internet” vanity aesthetics, design, and fashion masquerading as art. The foursome are co-founders of DIS Magazine, an online digital media platform that bills itself as exploring “tension between popular culture and institutional critique, while facilitating projects for the most public and democratic of all forums — the Internet.” At a press conference last February, Boyle spoke about their intentions for infusing BB9 with potent dualisms. “Our proposition is simple,” she said. “Instead of pulling talks on anxiety, let’s make people anxious; rather than symposia on privacy, let’s jeopardize it; instead of talking about capitalism, let’s distort it […] instead of unmasking the present, this is the present in drag.”
DIS, curatorial team of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (photo by Sabine Reitmaier)
DIS, curatorial team of the 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (photo by Sabine Reitmaier)
Initiated nearly 20 years ago by curator-cum-laureate Klaus Biesenbach, the Berlin Biennale has, under DIS’s curation, transformed from one of Europe’s most critical pinnacles of contemporary art into a vast obsolescent pageant of irrelevance, a disposable co-branding opportunity made to measure for privileged shareholders with little (if any) connection to the numerous issues facing Germany, Europe, or the international community today.
Instead, what DIS have come up with is an exhibition so vacuous, ideologically apathetic, ahistorical, sarcastic, and dehumanizing, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been blacklisted solely on account of its conformity to commodity fetishism. Not to mention their ignorance of current events shaping Europe — like the refugee crisis, the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland party, Brexit, neoliberalism, austerity, and the privatization of art, culture, and education. The exhibition is pieced together from the organizers’ unfettered acceptance of corporate culture, branding, product placement, and spectacle. Benjamin would likely have described it as an exhibition where a “circus-like and theatrical element of commerce is quite extraordinarily heightened.”
Directly outside the infamous Brandenburg Gate is one of the main exhibition venues, the Akademie der Künste (AdK), on the second floor of which Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch’s wearying video installation, “As yet untitled sculptural theater” (2016), invokes the immediacy of hyper-obsessive interactions. Their project is based around two new movies — Mark Trade and Permission Streak  commissioned specifically for the Biennale and made from the artists’ archival material dating back to the 1990s. In each, character-driven sketches are set to flash points of absurdity, with uncoupled dialogue between individuals interrupted by bursts of visual effects and animation. As characters engage in hopeless asymmetrical banter, it dawned on me that Trecartin and Fitch’s work hadn’t changed much over the last decade and a half.
Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, "(As yet untitled sculptural theater)" (2016), installation view
Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, “(As yet untitled sculptural theater)” (2016), installation view (all photos by Timo Ohler unless noted)
In a way, I feel bad for Trecartin and Fitch, whose work was at one time somewhat interesting and important, but has remained relatively unchanged since their mid-career retrospective at the Musée d/Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2012. In the years since, the duo has been merely replicating their same tired format over and over, likely due to pressure from gallerists and/or the art market, which made me think how much more stimulating their aesthetic would be with more performative elements. Even though I felt totally exhausted from their project at BB9, it would have been so much more interesting if Trecartin and Fitch began orchestrating performances, rather than video installations.
Directly across from Trecartin and Fitch, “In Bed Together” (2016), a work by M/L Artspace (Lena Henke and Marie Karlberg), seems to completely appropriate Trecartin and Fitch’s aesthetic. The work felt to me like high school party sponsored by Bed Bath & Beyond and Material Vodka. (Note: The project was actually sponsored by Bed Bath & Beyond and Material Vodka). The video installation included scores of individuals wearing sheets and a bed screenprinted with quotes so sarcastic, dry, and apathetic, the inanity and shallowness of the interactions in the piece made me think I was becoming more lame-brained by the minute.
M/L Artspace, "In Bed Together" (2016), installation view
M/L Artspace, “In Bed Together” (2016), installation view
Anna Uddenburg, “Transit Mode–Abenteuer” (2014–16), installation view
Also at AdK, Anna Uddenburg’s “Transit Mode–Abenteuer” (2014–16) takes the form of sculptures spread throughout the building depicting women emerging from suitcases in highly sexualized positions. According to its description, this work is meant to examine “body culture, spirituality, and self-staging,” but rather than holding up the issue of femininity to any sort of critical or concerning perspective, it simply conforms to ignorant gender stereotypes. Uddenburg’s work emphasizes tasteless voyeurism, attempting to use gender theory to mask what is otherwise a very crass depiction of women. Instead of drawing attention to important women’s issues, like the enhanced risk of gender-based violence unique to female refugees in Germany, Uddenburg’s sculptures merely objectify the ways in which women are all too often portrayed, leaving nothing to the imagination other than some thinly veiled trope of superficial acquiescence to gender theory.
On the terrace of the AdK, Jon Rafman’s “View of Pariser Platz” (2016), offers a site-specific experience of Brandenburger Tor seen from above, using Occulus Rift technology. It’s a nearly four-minute-long virtual-reality experience that re-articulates Pariser Platz with violent and erotic encounters, meant to provoke a sense of simulacrum, a complete distanciation from reality itself. This piece is emblematic of everything that is wrong with BB9: While the world is crumbling down around us, we are asked to don the Occulus Rift and forget all about it. It would have been great to see Rafman’s work demonstrate the slightest bit of sensitivity to the immense social and political importance of Pariser Platz — the site itself, not as a place full of zombies and lifeless falling bodies, but one where alternative social horizons, movements, and events could be imagined.
Jon Rafman, "View of Pariser Platz" (2016), installation view
Jon Rafman, “View of Pariser Platz” (2016), installation view
Hito Steyerl, "ExtraSpaceCraft" (2016), installation view (photo by Timo Ohler)
Hito Steyerl, “ExtraSpaceCraft” (2016), installation view
In the basement at AdK, Hito Steyerl’s “The Tower” (2015), a three-channel HD video installation developed in collaboration with David Riff, Nicolas Pelzer, and Maximilian Schmoetzer, is among the more praiseworthy and worthwhile works in the exhibition. It examines a master plan developed by Saddam Hussein to build a modern Tower of Babel, inundated with Steyerl’s aesthetic of layering images with digitized renderings, in addition to footage taken from a drone operated onsite. Juxtaposed with a fictional technology and programming firm commissioned by Ukraine to prototype conflict situations, the piece speaks at once to architectural references and contextual ideas relating to simulation, mythology, observation, surveillance, war, and geopolitics.
Another of the more palatable works in the exhibition is American artist Cécile Evans’s video installation, What the Heart Wants (2016), which offers a modicum of criticality set within an immersive environment that includes a room flooded with water and a catwalk leading up to a large screen projecting images of a fictional dystopic world, while a voiceover debates what it means to be human. From the experiences one derives from the digital age, consumerism, political disenfranchisement, and emotional desires, the work reminds me of Benjamin’s panoramic analyses meant to provide orientation within the antinomies of capitalism. In Evans’ work, Benjamin’s spectatorial mass is laid bare as “isolated words [that] have remained in place as marks of catastrophic encounters.” The uniqueness and originality of both Steyerl and Evan’s work is important because it gives some intellectual weight to what is otherwise an exhibition catering to philistines and annoying PR types.
Cécile B. Evans, "What the Heart Wants" (2016), video still
Cécile B. Evans, “What the Heart Wants” (2016), video still
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, "New Eelam" (2016), installation view Verschiedene Materialien Mixed media
Christopher Kulendran Thomas, “New Eelam” (2016), installation view
Verschiedene Materialien Mixed media
Other works in the exhibition include a woman lip-synching the lyrics to Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” and a project billed as a startup application envisaging the total AirBnB-ification of everyday life by Christopher Kulendran Thomas. Entitled “New Eelam” (2016)—a reference to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an armed utopian group in Sri Lanka violently crushed in 2009 by a Western-backed government—the work is set within a real-estate show room, and includes a video that offensively aims to laud the benefits of “liquid citizenship […] to provide a flexible subscription model for apartments […] based on joint ownership.” The narrator in the video praises “soft ethnic cleansing” in favor of creating a flexible subscription model for shared housing.
Outside in the courtyard at KW, a giant Rihanna statute is installed seemingly for the sole purpose of providing selfie opportunities, which organizers have been promoting under the hashtag #biennaleglam.
The majority of the exhibition feels like a prosthetic pop-up shop, simulated with a sense of faux rebelliousness — like if Andy Warhol met Guy Debord on Grindr, started collaborating, then decided to redeploy commerce and culture in a self-critical and self-congratulatory kind of way.
Not surprising, given that DIS is essentially a retail assemblage of creative stock-image propagandists, the exhibition also offers a vast array of “collectible” products, like 90€ Telfar cotton tank tops, expensive “artist”-made mint juices, so-called “Hater Blocker Contact Lenses” by Yngve Holen that are billed as “protective charms,” projects in collaboration with über-brosocialist brands like HBA (Hood by Air), and performances about the Internet like “How to DISappear in America: The Musical” (2016), which was so painfully kitschy I started to think the whole thing was a joke. Consequently, the entire exhibition felt like it was made for a group of relevant stakeholders. Even just walking through it, I felt like I was unscrupulously participating in a giant money-laundering operation tailor-made for brands seeking to amass cultural capital.
Files, gadgets, video installations, co-branding opportunities, cultures, conflicts, natural disasters, memes, technologies — BB9 is filled with works that attempt to replicate a kind of “critical” consumerism but instead simply conforms to it. I was constantly dissatisfied by the objects on display, always sure there was something better just beyond my affordability or knowledge, stretching BB9 to new heights of art-world FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Hence, the exhibition’s superficially draws attention to a multi-polar, mobile, post-democratic, post-conflict world, where the real-time conditions and information we are presented with becomes rearticulated to the tune of cherry-picked ideologies, brands, styles, and cultures.
BB9 logo
BB9 logo
Contrast this to 2012, when the seventh Berlin Biennale, under Artur Żmijewski’s curatorship, was conceived as a way of directly impacting district politics and the landscape of the city itself. BB7, for me, was a veritable how-to manual for a socially engaged curatorial methodology, witnessing art’s transformation into a social tool, broadening the discussion not of what art is, but of what it could be. At BB7, Martin Zet’s project took the form of a giant book-burning attempt calling for the collection of Thilo Sarrazin’s bestselling racist and xenophobic Deutschland schafft sich abat, using the platform of the biennale to trigger a broader political debate about immigration and identity within German society. The political engagement of BB7 also took the form of activists from M15 and Occupy, who were invited by Żmijewski to form international work groups on the ground floor of the KW, and numerous other public projects, seminars, debates, publications, policy issues, ideas, and workspaces were conceptualized, created, and disseminated as a result.
Comparatively, BB9 lacks any probity or concern for the present. It feels like a huge existential Apple ad transfiguring the space of art into something lacking any sincerity, art-historical reference, or concern for the social or political consequences of the events that are presently shaping Europe, much less the city of Berlin. BB9 places an emphasis on escaping the type of “artivist” practice emboldened by Żmijewski and others, but in doing so, it negates any positive social vision in favor of fantasy, spectacle, and commodity fetishism. Just as Benjamin connected the emergence of arcades to the newly formed spectatorial mass, false indexes of public freedom, and social dreams of utopia in the 19th century, so too does BB9 conform to a mythical idea of progress bound by technology, a gesture that feels overwhelmingly empty, vacant, and depleted.
In truth, it is difficult to insist that art has to aspire to participate in and change social and political disparities. Yet it is entirely different to disdainfully poke fun at art that tries to serve a greater social purpose. “Why should fascists have all the fun?” an advertisement for BB9 offensively asks. A new book, Towards a Conceptual Militancy (2016), by curator and theorist Mike Watson, seems to answer this question perfectly: “It is hoped that art, whatever it is, might still offer its small glimmer of hope and transcendence even in the age of the readymade and art as financial investment.” And: “With such great challenges mounted against subjective freedom, it cannot be the role of art to interpret the world, but, rather, to change it.”
Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art 9 continues throughout Berlin until September 18.


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