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Bodys at Rest: An African Artist Gets His Due at MoMA

Bodys Isek Kingelez almost wasn’t famous. He lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) — which was still known in the 1980s as Zaire, per edict of the autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko — a city scarce on opportunities for a contemporary artist. A bit of a recluse, Kingelez had ditched his early career as a schoolteacher for a more oblique civic engagement: constructing, out of paper and plastic and found materials, scale models of fantastical buildings that he imagined for the city.

When the Parisian curator André Magnin visited him in 1988, Kingelez was forty, and worked as a restorer at the national museum, tending to masks and other traditional items. His own art — meticulously crafted, vividly colored, always representing civic or business edifices — piled up at his office and in his modest home. Magnin picked Kingelez to be one of the artists in Les Magiciens de la Terre, the mega-group show he co-curated in 1989; mixing fifty Western artists with fifty from the so-called Third World, it made a forceful statement, especially for the time, about equal worth in contemporary art. Even so, the Congolese press treated Kingelez as a footnote, emphasizing the selection of the popular painter Chéri Samba instead.

“Ville Fantôme” (1996)

Kingelez is now the subject of a fun and absorbing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the apotheosis of a career that took off through that Paris exposure, making him a regular at biennials. It comes late for the artist, who died of cancer in 2015, and even later for the museum, as this is MoMA’s first-ever survey of a Black African artist. In that respect, the idiosyncratic Kingelez is an unexpected choice. But one has to start somewhere, and the show itself is a delight. Attractive in its jaunty, toy-world charm, it gets profound on longer look, as the cityscapes reveal the artist’s stubborn civic optimism dueling with his frustration at broken social promises and missed possibility.

Screen captures of “Ville Fantôme:” Virtual Reality Tour.

Kinshasa is the crucial context. Prior to the Paris show, it was the only major city Kingelez had known since arriving from his village after secondary school. In the late 1970s, when Kingelez began to make art, the energy was souring in many African cities, lofty post-independence dreams giving way to cynicism in the face of corruption, neo-colonialism, and complicit leadership. Mobutu’s histrionics amplified this phenomenon in Zaire. Having taken power in a coup in 1965, he had imposed in 1971 his doctrine of authenticité, under which people were told to spurn suits and ties for Mao-like ensembles, switch from French to African names, and call each other citoyen. The mishmash didn’t stick, leaving the single party, the M.P.R., with no ideology beyond plundering the country’s mineral wealth, while ordinary Zaireans lived by “Article 15,” a fictional law invented by street wags that stated simply débrouillez-vous, find a way to get by.

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Architecture and planning underwent a parallel decay. A wave of truly interesting African modernism had swept major cities on the continent as countries attained independence, starting with Ghana in 1957, and with the biggest batch, including the D.R.C., in 1960. In major African cities like Abidjan, Accra, and Dakar, both European and local architects endowed civic and corporate buildings with aggressive designs — blunt rectangles, cylinders, pyramids — plus elements such as breezeways or louvers or sheathing intended variously as decoration or to suit the climate. But by the 1980s, with money and belief exhausted, high architecture retreated, and unregulated sprawl took over as the language of urban expansion. Kinshasa was no exception, with no better symbol than the Tour de l’échangeur, four tubular concrete shafts soaring more than 200 meters high with a rounded triple-level belvedere on the top intended to serve as a city landmark — like the Eiffel Tower or Space Needle — as well as house a restaurant and other entertainment amenities. Begun in 1971, the tower looms over the city today, yet was never finished or put to use. Mobutu shifted his attention in the 1980s to building palaces and useless amenities in Gbadolite, his home village far up the river.

Kingelez was attuned to this psychic and political environment, and the needs it left unfulfilled. He had come to Kinshasa after high school, like so many rural migrants; his village was called Kimbembele-Ihunga, a place impossible to find on the map, at the edge of Bandundu and Kasaï regions in southwest D.R.C. At university in Kinshasa he studied economics and industrial design, so he was not exactly an autodidact. The urge to make art only hit in his late twenties, however, in a kind of epiphany. The medium he landed on would stick for the rest of his career. He called his works “extreme maquettes” — paper-based models of almost always imaginary buildings, and eventually whole cityscapes. They varied in size, but often reached two feet high or more. They landed between architecture and sculpture, but were not meant as literal designs — rather as general propositions, or fantasies. What made them truly distinct was their style, rich with ornaments and full of bright color applied with paint, marker, or colored pencil.

“U.N.” (1995)

The exhibition gathers 33 of these maquettes, many of them quite involved: The largest, Ville Fantôme (1996), fills a base that is roughly nineteen feet by eight feet, with buildings several feet high. All the works show imaginary buildings, except one — a rendering of that unfinished concrete tower in Kinshasa, Approche de l’échangeur de Limete Kin (1981). Three feet high and made of paper and cardboard colored with paint, marker, or pencil, it is close in structure to the original, though gold-toned with pink, orange, and brown accents instead of the concrete gray, and with its spire off-kilter, looking distinctly (and one presumes, intentionally) wobbly. Later Kingelez invented structures with clear marked purposes — airports, stadiums, universities — and sometimes urgent relevance, such as The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), an elaborate gingerbread-house hospital; that title appears verbatim on a label affixed as a canopy, using the French acronym for AIDS, a major concern in Congo at that time.

What he made of Mobutu is never clear. The M.P.R. acronym, for the ruling party, appears on a monument in Place de la Ville (1993), a model of a plaza with a rambling city hall–cum–conference center, a second building dominated by scalloped shapes, plus paper trees and statuary. A version of Mobutu’s green-and-yellow Zaire flag flies atop the buildings, but incomplete, the central torch-bearing brown hand replaced by a ghostly white shape. Then there are two works titled after Kingelez’s rural village. Reinvented in Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the village becomes a space-age downtown with some fifteen buildings in assorted shapes — bulbs, wheels, fans, scallops, shafts — and a cacophony of decoration. One of three large, complex cityscapes in the show, the work includes a railway station with a sleek high-speed train ready to depart, as well as a “Kingelez Stadium.” One can read the work as aspirational and development-minded, but also a sideways comment on Mobutu’s Gbadolite and similar artificial cities manufactured by autocrats.

“Kimbembele Ihunga” (detail) (1994)

By then, the Mobutu regime was falling apart, the president sick and often out of the country, the government dysfunctional, and the Rwandan civil war spilling into the east of the country to spark a regional conflict that continues to mutate to this day. Mobutu fell in 1997, and died in exile in Morocco the same year. His successor, Laurent Kabila (father of the current president) promptly changed the country’s name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through it all, Kinshasa carried on in its usual resourceful way. Kingelez stayed, though he now traveled for exhibitions and European residencies. His spent the newfound means from purchases and commissions on imported art supplies, but also on Kinshasa real estate.

His work became more global in references, however. U.N. (1995) is a wild alternative design of a United Nations headquarters that looks like a demented fairground attraction. Nippon Tower (2005) and Development Australian Bank (2007) make geographical assertions in their title, and Sports Internationaux (1997), a tower of beer and soda cans crossed by an oval horizontal structure adorned with Lipton tea bags, is odd but clearly of global intent. (His proposal for replacement twin towers for New York City after the 9-11 attacks, with their third structure intended as a water-cooling system for putting out fires, is not in this show.) Ville Fantôme (“Ghost City”) is peak Kingelez: With skyscrapers up to four feet tall amid a forest of lower-rise buildings in seemingly every possible shape, it looks like a demented mash-up, drizzled in colors, of Las Vegas, Dubai, and the capital of Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Adding to the overload of signifiers, some towers are marked “USA,” and one cluster of buildings is labeled “Seoul.” (This piece is also the subject of a three-minute virtual-reality experience at MoMA, in which you zoom amid the buildings, though this reviewer, deterred by the long line, skipped the opportunity.)

“Sports Internationaux” (1997) and “Nippon Tower” (2005)

Kingelez was on a residency in Sète, a port on the French Mediterranean, in 2000, when he fell ill, resulting in his cancer diagnosis. He lived another fifteen years, but his output slowed. The cityscape Ville de Sète 3009 (2000), made during that visit, contains some of the classic Kingelez motifs — scalloped triangle buildings, weird tubes, bulb or cone spire ornaments — but makes greater use of translucent materials that give the work airiness and new light. With diagonal lines sectioning curtain-walls (in the manner of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building in Hong Kong), and a star-like grid of roads, it suggests a geometry at work, a vector field. It is the rare Kingelez work that feels squarely futuristic, and not just for its title. More often he seems to work in an alternative present, concerned with expanding the scope of possibility to address civic needs. And though his maquettes are not meant for literal implementation, the cascade of materials and style vernaculars involved in their making returns, inexorably, to the improvisational genius at work in Kinshasa and other African cities.

“Ville de Sète 3009” (2000)

“As I see it, he is more of a mental-mapping phenomenon, and his sculptures represent a dogged mining of the contemporary African psyche,” the British and Ghanaian architect David Adjaye writes of Kingelez in a catalog essay. “The power of his work comes from his ability to aggregate his observations in fantastical scenarios.” There is nothing stereotypically traditional in Kingelez’s maquettes — no village motifs like thatched huts, nor for that matter the slum vernacular of tin-roofed shacks. Instead he offers a kind of shadow history of African modernism as it might have been and could yet be, suffusing his work with the while tormented, romantic history of nationhood and belonging, from the independence era through globalization, with its promises and contradictions. The absences are striking as well. Kingelez never put human figures in his works. He never depicted housing. He only did cities. Perhaps that was just his obsession, but it reminds us that infrastructure, public facilities, the skyline, remain central to how a society narrates itself, its way of being. They are always improvable, and they are worth the fight.

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The sheer color and invention gives the MoMA show a snack value that has earned it raves since it opened in early summer. The works live on white pedestals with rounded, irregular shapes, prepared by the German artist Carsten Höller; they are not encased in vitrines, so one feels proximity. But there are missed opportunities, too. A thirty-minute documentary about Kingelez, with ample interview footage, is shown near the elevators, in an area where noise is near-certain, making it impossible to hear. The catalog is truly excellent, its highlight a fluent and wide-ranging essay on Kingelez’s life, art, and context by curator Sarah Suzuki, but little of that information makes it to the gallery. The risk is that Kingelez’s work lands out of nowhere, and comes off like a brilliant curiosity.

Kingelez is at one end of the spectrum for African artists, in that his exposure owes primarily to Western curators and patrons. They include Magnin and the businessman Jean Pigozzi, whose famous private collection of African contemporary art, considered the world’s largest, owns a good number of the works in this show. Kingelez didn’t exhibit in Kinshasa, nor seek out Congolese collectors. To be clear, this was also by his choice: He was obdurate, grandiose, and didn’t care for the company of other local artists. That’s fine; it’s who he was. But if MoMA, after looking away from Africa so long, is to play catch-up (for instance with the Brooklyn Museum, which has presented surveys of El Anatsui and Wangechi Mutu), the hope is that it will pick up the pace, broaden the range, and not limit the pleasure of deep engagement with the work to those who already know.

‘Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams’
Museum of Modern Art
212-708-9400
moma.org
Through January 1

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Proof of Concept: Thinking About Adrian Piper

A stubborn fugitivity runs through the work of Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and performer—as well as writer and philosophy scholar—whose career of more than five decades is the subject of a thorough, gripping retrospective this season at the Museum of Modern Art, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016

Piper is always in two situations at once — an inside-outsider, never at ease, she is artist and academic, theorist and performer, impulsive improviser and ruminating self-examiner. Some of her works are naked self-portraiture, literal or through text that inspects her own psyche or family history. Others are challenges to the viewer, sometimes imperious, that she structures using photo, sound, and text to demand we audit our behavior and biases. At one point, the path through the exhibition requires you to traverse the Humming Room, an empty space where you must hum a tune in order to enter — you choose the tune, but you have to hum, and the guard is checking. The experience takes us deep inside and far outside of ourselves, a clue, perhaps, to Piper’s method and the tug of forces in her mind.

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Race is crucial here — and particularly, racial ambiguity. Piper, 69, who grew up in Upper Manhattan, the daughter of a lawyer and a college administrator, is of mixed race, and was light-skinned enough to generally merge into spaces of white privilege, including the world of New York minimalists and conceptualists that she entered as a young woman in the late 1960s, forging for instance a long-term friendship with Sol LeWitt. In this milieu she shed her teenage figurative experiments, as well as her loud color works made under the influence of LSD, in favor of a hybrid language mixing photography, drawing, text, painting, sound, and performance that she would refine over the years.

Yet she was acutely conscious of her Black origins and history: Her ancestors Philip and Nellie Piper had been owner and slave on a plantation in Louisiana but, unusually, married after the Civil War and settled in Ohio, among abolitionists. (Piper details this genealogy in a text-dense work on paper, Never Forget, made in 2016 and one of the final pieces in the exhibition.) Questions of racial assertion, projection, and unease, whether toward oneself or others, suffuse her work. But she deals more in queries than answers; in identity as process, not as fixed state.

Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being, Village Voice Ads” (1973–75)

Piper moved her base to Berlin, following a protracted legal and administrative conflict with her employer, Wellesley College, where she had been a professor of philosophy since 1990s but had also forcefully raised issues of institutional racism. These days she avoids the United States altogether, and did not bother to come to New York for her retrospective, nor for that matter to do interviews. (Indeed, she regards most art writing and criticism as somewhat pointless: “No talk that talks can substitute for direct, unguarded, and sustained exposure to the intuitive presence of the artwork on terms that cannot be talked at all,” she writes in the exhibition catalog, in a contribution that is mostly an essay on Kantian philosophy.) Despite the distance, however, she was closely involved in every aspect of the show’s preparation, and she offers warm praise to the curators, Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker, in her introduction, calling the experience “the most profoundly fulfilling collaboration of my life.”

With its constant interplay of closeness and distancing, its emotional heat and intellectual coolness, Piper’s work can seem difficult at times, but rewards the kind of immersion that the MOMA show permits — ideally over several visits. The generous space the museum has allotted to the show, which spreads across the whole sixth floor, gives both the works and the viewer room to breathe.

For Piper’s devotees, this show has been a long time coming. I asked three of them — art historian John Bowles, author of the first monograph on Piper; pianist Jason Moran, who has collaborated with Piper; and social practice artist Chloë Bass, who considers Piper her chief inspiration, to describe how she changed their lives, and to pick a few favorites. 

Adrian Piper, “Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment” (2012)

JOHN BOWLES, associate professor of African American Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011):
At first I was thinking about Piper in the context of several other conceptual and performance artists. But I ended up writing my first book just about her, because the more research I did, the more important and challenging I found her work to be. Whereas with the others, I got to a point where I felt like I’d figured it out. With her works, there’s an incredibly intense engagement with important moral questions about how we judge each other, how we present ourselves to other people, but mostly about how other people judge us based on what they think they see in us.

JASON MORAN, jazz pianist, composer, and interdisciplinary artist; collaborated with Piper on his album Artist in Residence (2006), and often works with visual artists including Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, and Kara Walker:
When I was introduced to her work, fourteen years ago, it became central because it demanded an understanding from within: that I as the artist would have to understand, and not be frightened to share what I thought I understood, my own work, in my own terms, under my own conditions.
And that was a breaking point for me. Because rather than just shouting John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk over and over, it was, “Wait a minute now: There has to be a reorganization of why we do this.” For me Adrian shows up in this dense body of work, where she really understands her craft from multiple levels, and she expresses it in a way that made me want to dive deeper into my own practice, and share that. It was a new testament after working and learning with her.

CHLOË BASS, Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, assistant professor of art at Queens College, CUNY; has a solo exhibition, “The Book of Everyday Instruction,” at the Knockdown Center through June 17:
For me this is just personal. My mother is a visual artist and my father is a philosopher: Those are the poles of my life. And that somebody brings those together but also adds what has been the most resounding element of my own practice, because I come from theater and performance, which is the body, there’s nothing I can’t learn from that. Every time I see Piper’s work I learn, even when I don’t like the works. I’m hoping that I can take where she leaves off in terms of confrontation and continue with an invitation to intimacy that also asks us to try to change how we see, how we are, and how we live. And I don’t think I could do that if these works didn’t exist. It’s that simple. 

Adrian Piper, “Catalysis III,” 1970

Catalysis III (1970)
In an early series of performances, Piper stepped onto the streets of New York in abstract costumes, in which she wore a shirt covered in white paint with a sign marked “Wet Paint,” and moved around the city, including shopping at Macy’s.

BOWLES: On one hand, it’s a project about objectification: She makes a spectacle of herself for other people to interact with — or to avoid interacting with. But in retrospect it’s impossible to think about the work without the context of race. In Catalysis III she wears a shirt covered in white paint, making a monochrome painting of herself. That choice of white makes me think about how much of her work is about whiteness, and about ways in which whiteness is policed in our society. Who gets the privilege, who gets to identify as white, who’s part of the in club?

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Bach Whistled (1970)
This work is an audio piece in which Piper whistles several Bach concertos. In her own words: “At the beginning the whistling is relatively strong, clear, and on key. As the performance progresses it becomes weaker, flatter, and more like plaintive cheeping.”

MORAN: Bach is a titan of counterpoint, of melody, a kind of Holy Grail, but we rarely think of his music as casual. Adrian adopts it in an entirely different space, which is in the body. And she reads the melody through her whistling, which is, you know, above-average whistling. She reorganizes Bach that way. And that’s pivotal to me. Conservatory students need to understand songs in their repertoire like that — as central to the body rather than central to the canon. In the exhibition, the piece is set against the graph paper works she was making at the time. And Bach isn’t consistent the way graph paper is. She places Bach in that scope of the grid, and everything else oozes around it.

Adrian Piper, “The Mythic Being” (1973)

The Mythic Being (multiple works, 1973–75)
A wigged and mustached male-presenting character that Piper imagined in 1973 and deployed in multiple settings: walking down the street in spontaneous performances; as the subject of photo projects; and as a kind of alter ego issuing various challenges and pronouncements. She retired the character in 1975.

BOWLES: The work of hers that first grabbed my attention, and was probably many people’s introduction, was her Mythic Being performances. What I found fascinating was the risk that she was taking: She’s altering her appearance and dealing with an audience that isn’t expecting performance, isn’t expecting artwork. And the performances really weren’t documented — the photos were made for creating other artworks, not to document the original performances. So we have to imagine it. She changes her appearance to look like a man, and in her writing she talks about feeling a certain freedom she doesn’t have as a woman, how she can walk around the streets of New York and not get catcalled, and imagine the freedom that men feel in their everyday lives. She writes of a certain kind of sexual liberation that she feels because she doesn’t have to be herself in the way people might expect her to be.

Adrian Piper, “A Tale of Avarice and Poverty” (1985)

A Tale of Avarice and Poverty (1985)
A photograph and text work that tells a complex family history centering on Piper’s grandmother and mother, and their alienation and distance from men in the family.

BASS: What I love about this, as someone who also works with family archival materials, is the challenge to think about how we write the people that we love into being. In this same period, in the 1980s, she’s making all these political self-portraits, which are also great works, but here she takes it away from herself and starts to imagine how this all came to be. I have no idea how much of this story about her grandmother is true or how much of it is fabricated. I don’t know when the picture is from — or is it even really her grandmother? In a way it doesn’t matter. The structure of the image to the pieces of text, the spaces that it builds, allows you to understand with a great deal of tenderness that this person has been positioned in a way that she did not choose. And that invites us to understand that we may be doing that to others, and that others are doing that to us.

Adrian Piper, “My Calling (Card) # 1 for Dinners and Cocktail Parties” (1986-90)

My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–90)
One of a series of business cards that Piper imagined and printed to hand out to people making casual racist comments at social events or to importuning men at bars, in lieu of having to speak to them directly.

BOWLES: I imagine it would be difficult to receive one of these cards. But there’s a video of a discussion where someone asked Adrian what it’s like to give one of these cards, and she said it’s devastating. Because people will assume she’s being aggressive by pointing out someone else’s racism. Still, what is so powerful about the work is how it tries to help the person who has made the racist comments understand their responsibility in perpetuating racism, and the responsibility to work harder. And by having batches of these cards printed each time the work is shown, she’s spreading the work exponentially. Anyone who wants to use these cards can use them. Lots of people have emulated this work, because the concept is so simple yet the gesture is so profound.

Adrian Piper, “Safe #1–4” (1990)

Safe #1-4 (1990)
An installation in which happy group photographs of Black people in various celebratory settings are placed in the four corners of a room, conveying presence while assuring the viewer that he or she is safe.

MORAN: One part of what Adrian pulls out is that this work is central to everyone, it’s not just specific to any group of people. For me in that room, with these four pieces on the wall, it’s in a museum space but she just keeps sending the reminders that you’re not in there alone. Those photographs look a lot like pictures I have at home, or images I saw as a kid — you know, Black folk going skiing. It’s normalized within my understanding of who we are as people, and how comfortable we are in our environment. But the museum environment is another space. Adrian is raising the temperature, but always very calmly. It’s never shouting, it’s almost like a proposition to you, a reminder. I first saw this work years ago, and on seeing it again now, it still needs to be said. It’s a simple humanity that she’s demanding, in her very quiet way.

Adrian Piper, “Ashes to Ashes” (1995)

Ashes to Ashes (1995)
A work that pairs an archival photograph of a couple — Piper’s parents—with a dense and harrowing text about the later years of their marriage when they faced decline and death from smoking-related diseases. Piper made the work after learning that a show she was to take part in was sponsored by Philip Morris, the tobacco company.

BASS: So much of Piper’s self-presentation is so controlled. Just look at the arrangement of this text. As a person who also spends a lot of time arranging text, this is a strong choice that I probably wouldn’t have the courage to make. You have the two figures of the parents, like twin towers, but also the two frames of the piece, almost as another twin towers. You can imagine that continuing to echo out: What is the next thing, where this becomes one tower in the following arrangement? And those parameters are different in each setting, depending on whether you’re experiencing the work in a book, in the way the exhibition is designed, or out in the world.

Adrian Piper, “Adrian Moves to Berlin” (2007). Detail

Adrian Moves to Berlin (2007)
A video performance, projected at MOMA on a large screen, in which Piper is dancing in a plaza in Berlin, while numerous people walk by and watch, though no one joins her.

BOWLES: When I was writing my book and talking with Adrian, it was the tail end of her fights with Wellesley College, and when she moved to Germany. I have the sense that she felt restrained; that it was becoming difficult for her to make the kind of work she needed to do. And I love this video because it seems like such an expression of joy and freedom. I get the sense that this move to Berlin has been incredibly liberating. She’s found intellectual freedom and a place that’s more welcoming, where she found more respect than in America. That speaks to the importance of this exhibition as well, where her retrospective is getting an entire floor at MOMA, one of our most important museums. And watching this video of her dancing in the square, it’s almost like she’s extending an invitation to all of us, to join her in intellectual freedom and ecstasy. 

‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
moma.org
Through July 22

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Paco Cao Creates Interactive Art in a Cocktail

Paco Cao is one of the most in-demand cocktail creators in the world. Except that he doesn’t actually make cocktails — he conceptualizes them. Through a series titled “Psychological Cocktail Services,” Cao has roamed the globe — Spain, Mexico, Italy — facilitating audience-inspired libations at museums and hotels. Cao is far more than a bespoke mixologist. A revered artist, he thrives on interactive projects, taking audience participation, chance, and outside inspiration to conduct quirky and often provocative exhibitions.

Now, he is bringing his bartending production here to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400), where he will teach two (possibly three) sessions for Big Apple clients. We chatted with Cao about what to expect at MoMA, what inspires his work, and why he chose cocktails as the medium for his latest project.

So how does a Psychological Cocktail Service work?
Clients fill out a questionnaire, and according to their answers, I’ll prepare a specific recipe for every client. This time I will be using some of the works that are on exhibit in the main galleries at MoMA as inspiration. I’ll be mostly focusing on the avant-garde moment in Europe. I will share an introduction with the participants about bars and nightclubs and drinks in that specific period. Cafés were very important for those artists because it was a way to socialize. And then I will talk about how I develop the cocktails and build the questionnaire, and at the end we will have our cocktail service so the participants will better understand the practice.

What is the difference between your project and bespoke cocktails?
There’s a big difference. First, my questionnaire is not just about how you feel, it’s more elaborate. And the second is the process of making the cocktail. After I get the questionnaire I have to make the recipe. To make the service fluid, with good rhythm, I collaborate directly with a bartender who makes the cocktails. When I do this, I’m usually in a public space and I have to be extremely focused. I’m making about 40 cocktails in an hour.

The difference for the customer is subtle. Either way they get a cocktail. But there is an artistic intention behind the process. I’ve been dealing with projects that involve direct interaction and reaction of an audience. For example, years ago I did Rent-a-Body where I was renting myself out. I did a public look-a-like contest based on art that incorporated public interaction and participation.

Each time, I have the intention of connecting directly with the audience, having immediate and direct response with the audience.

Why cocktails? Are you a trained bartender?
I’m a regular client, I like to drink…[laughs] not heavily, recreationally. Cocktail-making is a big thing and professionals take it very seriously and it’s very experimental. Every time you make a cocktail it is experimental. I didn’t go to school for mixology. I didn’t go to school for art either. Experimenting is the best way for me to learn. Every time I work with a mixologist I learn a lot.

Do you know the bartenders beforehand?
Usually no, but we connect. I meet them the day of the session, but we have to be really focused and in direct communication, and we need to go really fast.

How do you develop the questionnaires?
That’s a good question. I don’t have a background in psychology but I’m very curious. I have a formal education in art history. Research. Lots of research. Over the last two years I’ve been exploring and trying to figure out which questions will really tell me the psychological identity of the person who answers the questions and how to really choose the right liquid, or mixtures, or salt or earth or whatever I use. I keep evolving the questions, and I have this tendency to change some questions depending on the country or the town so people can better relate. If I have a question about artists or authors, maybe in Italy they’re famous but in another country no one knows them. The questionnaire’s nature is what I enjoy the most and it’s the most challenging part. And at MoMA I’ll have the chance to explore the nature of the questionnaire in a new way, and most of the questions will be based on the collection. I’ll deal with pop culture and symbolic questions, and I don’t know what kind of audience I will get. Some will have a lot of art knowledge and others won’t. And I’ll have to find a balance.

And one other thing that is interesting here is that in all my previous projects I’ve never previously worked in the area I was exploring. I’ve had no context. What I like about these projects is they allow me to explore these worlds in an unexpected way. When you’re not a professional in those businesses, what you do is different, and that’s what catches people’s attention.

Paco Cao will be teaching two sessions at the Museum of Modern Art in February and April. They are both sold out and a third session is potentially in the works to accommodate a long waiting list. But do not fret — Dr. Cao performs around the world on a regular basis. To follow him and his projects, check out his webpage: pacocao.com.

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Tilda Swinton Isn’t Eating in That MoMA Box

“Mattress, pillow, linen, water, and spectacles.” The description plaque on Tilda Swinton’s “The Maybe” exhibit at MoMA notes that the actress won’t be snacking while resting in her glass box. [Telegraph]

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5 Great Gifts for Beer Lovers

Holiday shopping is in full swing and gift guides are aplenty, but what does a friend, spouse, family member, or fond admirer get for the devoted beer lover in their life? Gifts from these New York locales will do the trick.

Beer Making Kits from Brooklyn Brew Shop, $40
Everything you need to make one gallon of your favorite Brooklyn Brew is in a little brown box. Try something different like Jalapeno Saison or Bourbon Dubbel. Your beginner brewer will be quite thankful and who knows, maybe they’ll share that gallon with you.

 


Beer Connoisseur Set from MoMa Store, $50

Pour your loved one a beer in every glass, but don’t forget which goes where. This crystal set includes four glass shapes: wheat beer, tall pilsner, lager, and a beer tulip.

 

Taste the Taps at Jimmy’s No. 43, $25
Instead of trying one or two beers, try all of them. Walk in with this voucher and taste four ounces from each of the 12 taps.

 

One Bottle Tote from Bierkraft, $13.95
For the beer lover on the go, grab this Christmas-colored insulated tote, that’s designed to carry one 750-mL bottle. Sorry 40 oz. lovers. The guys at Bierkraft guarantee it stays cold up to four hours.

Homebrewing Class from Brooklyn Kitchen, $145
If you want to give the gift of teaching, splurge on this two-hour brewing class taught by Ray Girard. A homebrew starter kit is included, and your gift recipient will walk away with a few bottles of their own homemade beer.

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FOOD ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Where Was I Eating? The Modern

[See Where Else I Ate: Union Square Cafe | Ai Fiori]

Congratulations to JonDoe who guessed the The Modern.

I was eating their Alaskan king crab at the Modern at MOMA. Stay tuned next week for another round!

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MoMA’s Latest Exhibition: You, Staring at a Performance Artist

Really, though. When is performance art never not funny?

The Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibition is hysterical, and awesome, and bound to produce hysterically awesome results. Essentially, there’s the artist — Marina Abramović — sitting in a chair. You, the participant, sit across a table from her, also in a chair. And you stare at her. And stare at her. And stare at her.

In addition, a new, original work performed by Abramović will mark the longest duration of time that she has performed a single solo piece. (Please note: Abramović will not perform during MoMA Nights.) All performances, one of which involves viewer participation, will take place throughout the entire duration of the exhibition, starting before the Museum opens each day and continuing until after it closes, to allow visitors to experience the timelessness of the works.

So, essentially, you can go to MoMA and stare at this famous performance artist. Even better, during museum hours, you can watch other people doing it from the comfort of your computer, live. No word on whether or not this is like going to Buckingham Palace and ripping ass in front of a royal guard really, really hard, or what’ll happen if you spoil that week’s Lost for her, or if you can offer her a Frappuccino, or if she’s going to try and make your head explode like in Scanners. But you know something great’s bound to come out of this.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Pulp Fictions: Sita Sings the Blues at MoMA

Comics come out on Wednesday, and so does Richard Gehr’s Pulp Fictions.

Sita Sings the Blues
MoMA
November 20/22

Hindu gods sing, dance, and cavort merrily in the most visually intoxicating animated musical to not be released this year. Cartoonist-turned-animator Nina Paley combines the giddy jazz rhythms of Betty Boop-era Fleischer Studios, Terry Gilliam’s Python collage, epic Hindu religious films, traditional Indian art, autobiographical cartooning, and contemporary boutique advertising design in Sita Sings the Blues, her brilliant reinterpretation of everyone’s favorite ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana.

(Still lacking a distributor, as unbelievable as that now seems, Paley’s gorgeous and touching film screens November 20 and 22 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of IFP’s Gotham Independent Film Awards series. Its category, fittingly, is Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.)

Dumped by her husband via email from India, Paley discovered the Ramayana while mourning the relationship’s demise. Her therapy? Animating the Ramayana scene wherein Sita’s husband, doubting her virtue, forces her to undergo a trial by fire. In a short film Paley made in 2003, Sita sang 1920s radio star Annette Hanshaw’s version of the jazz standard “Mean to Me”; five years later, the song is now just one of several Hanshaw tracks that illuminate Sita’s ill-fated marriage to the heroic Rama (the god Vishnu’s earthly incarnation) in Paley’s 80-minute reinvention of the Bollywood musical. Hanshaw’s torchy vocals transcend time and culture, adding the perfect lilting ache to Sita’s betrayal by her spouse.

For a theological epic, the Ramayana is a lot like a soap opera. Rama continues to be suspicious of Sita’s fidelity after he rescues her from his ten-headed brother, who kidnaps Sita away to the island Lanka. Forced to prove her purity one final time, Sita begs Mother Earth to swallow her up if she has remained faithful to Rama—and the earth obliges. But Sita Sings the Blues is an action epic, too. In one of its best musical set pieces, Sita/Hanshaw croons “Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door?” throughout a colorfully stylized bloody battle between Rama’s monkey army and Ravana’s legion of demons.

No less than the Bible or Koran, the Ramayana lies wide open to interpretation. Paley exploits its drift in meaning by relating much of the story’s backbone through a three-part conversation voiced by stylized shadow-puppet figures whose conversational storytelling, commentary, and corrections are animated verbatim, spelling mistakes and all. Paley’s point is that even contemporary Indians are unclear as to the story’s details. “Don’t challenge these stories,” jibes one of the three when a character’s motivation is questioned.

Paley wrote, directed, designed, animated, edited, and did just about everything except provide the voices in this lithe and multileveled marvel. Few cartoonists make great animators, but Paley is an obvious exception. (Don’t miss the musical sequence that originates as a word balloon emerging from the mouth of Hanuman, the monkey god.) What seemed at first a strangely sexist piece of cultural exotica became a catharsis. The heavens opened in a cross-cultural collision and Nina Paley tumbled headlong into its multihued syncopations.

Sita Sings the Blues is at MoMA on November 20 and November 22

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

We Remember MOMA

1. The Permanent Point of View
By Kim Levin

When MOMA shut down entirely some months ago, it was hard not to read sym­bolic meaning into its absence, which seemed to confirm years of rumblings about modernism’s demise. While MOMA was preoccupied with matters of survival, the notion of being postmodern escalated to the level of cliché. But since renovation began four years ago, several varieties of newly traditional and neomo­dern art have emerged. It’s tempting to say that the new MOMA, purer and cleaner and twice its former size, proves that modernism didn’t die — it’s alive and well in MOMA heaven.

Yes, the new escalators are spectacular, though not as spectacular as the Beau­bourg’s, nor as radical architecturally. No playful exoskeletal ducts for architect Cesar Pelli. Simply the sleekest, most antiseptic, glacial, and elegantly under­stated Late Modern functional space — as befits its position as lodestar for early, high, and late modernist art. For museum practicality, it’s planned very well. If the big subject of conversation in the inter­national art world last week was who had an invitation to which of the various special previews, lunches, dinners, and black-tie affairs — a comically complex caste system — the question of who’s in and who’s out was paralleled in the exhi­bitions themselves, not just the big International Survey of Contemporary Paint­ing and Sculpture but in the permanent carpeted galleries too, and even more in the wooden-floored galleries of art from the ’60s and ’70s.

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The real question, though, isn’t who’s included and who isn’t but why. If any­one momentarily wondered whether the reinstallations would present a revisionist view of modernism, the answer is a re­sounding no. Even the one semifigurative late Guston is in the limbo of a hall, as are the Mexican social realists. MOMA is as traditionally modernist and as inflexible as ever. However, the permanent col­lection is installed much more intelligent­ly and sensitively, and there are some realignments. The early 20th century gal­leries not only hint at a relation between Seurat and the Douanier Rousseau (even in the absence of a major Seurat), but make a telling connection between Gau­guin’s exotic primitivism and Rousseau’s, with Rousseau now seeming the more radically modern. In the gem of a Cubist room, a 1914 Picasso painting with Rus­sian lettering is brilliantly paired with a 1913 Russian Constructivist sculpture (made of painted wood, cardboard, and eggshells) by Vladimir Baranoff-Rossine. Picasso’s musicians lead inexorably to Léger and Brancusi, both of whom now speak eloquently (and naively) about automation and the utopian assembly-line dreams of modern times. I’m not cra­zy about the oval platform the Brancusis are on, but the Picasso room, the Matisse room, the Mondrian room, the De Chirico room (classic early modern ones with empty urban vistas and bottle green skies, of course) are all exquisite.

The sensibility that orchestrated all this — Bill Rubin’s — is a cerebral formal­ist one. The linear installation invokes orderly evolution and progress, from Eu­rope up a flight to America, from Ab­stract Expressionism — the abstract expressionist galleries are gorgeous and spacious — to the dubious glories of color field, with blatant signposts (Rothko, pre-black Reinhardt, Motherwell, an al­most all-white Al Held) along the way. The sculpture is mixed in just right, mak­ing sly but obvious points. It’s all been embalmed so fastidiously that it actually seems to live and breathe again. But even the Surrealists are made to look like solid formalists here, with Masson anticipating Pollock, Balthus hooked up with Ma­gritte and the fixity of both tracking back to Léger and Rousseau. That’s the glory of the installation, though: it wordlessly sets off trains of thought as you go. Line­ages and linkages that were never so ap­parent before line themselves up subtly, sometimes with stunning obviousness. And it’s witty: John Graham, odd man out, is in an anteroom by himself, the megalomaniacal Dali has a tiny fragile painted glass proscenium scene set into a wall.

The painting and sculpture galleries, telling a story, may stray slightly into the postmodern terrain of narrative. But there’s no room in these heavenly spaces at Neo-MOMA for a multilayered Pica­bia from the late 1920s (not to mention a pseudo-philistine one), or for one of De Chirico’s postmetaphysical antimodern paintings, such as the grandiose theatri­cal Capriccio Veneziana alla Maniera de Veronese now being shown just a few blocks away. Or for the unmodern non­structural aspects of Surrealist art that have something in common with very re­cent art. Or even — heaven forbid — for the casual leisure-time modernity of Raoul Dufy. Or for Miró’s unexpectedly great recent sculpture which is more var­ied and inventive and contemporarily rel­evant than I’d ever guessed. No monkey wrenches are allowed to disrupt Rubin’s neat historical progression. But for some of these problematic aspects of modern­ism that MOMA omits, current gallery shows are taking up the slack: late De Chiricos can be seen at their baroque and preposterous best and at their most questionable antioriginal worst in two differ­ent shows right now. There’s an exhibi­tion of Surrealist drawings, a lot of them and a lot of intriguing ones, on 57th Street, and also a big exhibition of Miró’s fertile and varied late sculpture. And fur­ther uptown the waters are being tested for Dufy.

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Back at MOMA, on the wooden-­floored spaces of the recent past, there’s nationalistic muscle flexing and a delib­erate misreading of the ’60s and ’70s that overemphasizes the sleek formal aspects. Lichtenstein’s Entablature, Oldenburg’s black ray gun, Yves Klein’s monochrome blue, and Arman’s ball bearings are cho­sen for spurious resemblances to former formalisms. There’s a dialogue in white­ness that extends from Malevich to Johns and Olitski. Robert Morris’s hanging felt makes you think back to Morris Louis’s brown veil. Richard Serra’s balanced lead and Joseph Beuys’s tubes of felt look more purely formal than they are, and Beuys’s accompanying sausages are tucked discreetly behind a wall.

And whatever became of Conceptual­ism? No evidence of it. Painting and sculpture, indeed. Not a nod to the fact that the artists who made these sleek objects were thinking about other things, or that the last thing on many artists’ minds in the ’60s and ’70s was painting or sculpture. No inkling that anything like Earthworks or Photo Realism ever exist­ed. Even the black and white Chuck Close is included for its gridding, not its imagery, as is made clear by its proximity to a LeWitt and one of Agnes Martin’s early white grids. Rubin’s installations emphasize the solidity of modernist art. But there are other aspects of which his installations give little clue. Modern art began with a crisis of the represented object (which Impressionists dissolved in light, Cezanne dissolved in anxiety, Expressionists engulfed in emotionality, Cubists shattered, and “non-objective” artists banished entirely). It seemed to end, more or less, with the crisis of the art object around 1970. Since then, art­ists have been moving beyond traditional notions of formalist modernism, seeking ways for all kinds of forbidden imagery to wriggle back in — dealing with bigger questions beyond the art object and a crisis of the image. It looks as if MOMA is not yet prepared to acknowledge that early, high, and even late modernism may now be a period style. Or maybe, by stiff­ening its back to the onslaughts against modernist orthodoxy and by continuing the illusion of normalcy, that’s exactly what the museum is doing. In any case, it’s a thrill to have this prime repository available again, and perhaps by its die­hard stance it will help us clarify newer positions. ❖

2. Temporary Misgivings
By Roberta Smith

If the renewed museum and restored collection have turned out better than expected, “An International Exhibition of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” the inaugurating temporary exhibition, is somewhat disappointing, although its generous ecumenical spread seems in keeping with the celebratory tone of the museum’s reopening. This exhibition is both the New World’s first retort to the major international shows which have frequented Europe recently and MOMA’s first large-scale survey of contem­porary art activity since its 1971 “Infor­mation,” an extensive look at Conceptualism also organized by curator Kynaston McShine. As such it has had a mission nearly impossible from the out­set: in one fell swoop, to bring the muse­um assertively into the ’80s and to offer a viable alternative to the European ten­dency to feature the 30 or 40 greatest living white male artists.

To accomplish this, McShine has backed up a bit, starting with the second half of the ’70s and working to the pres­ent in rather random fashion, sticking close to painting and sculpture, the tradi­tional tools of modernism. There are examples of New Image and Pattern and Decoration intermingling with a couple of generations of international figuration (separated in the press release into expressionism, allegory, and metaphor, nar­rative and humor), plus a smattering of abstraction and sculpture.

The result is Whitney Biennial Inter­national Style — undeniable evidence of MOMA’s own role in spreading the word of modernism worldwide — or at least to the industrialized West. (Its 165 partici­pants herald from 17 countries, mostly the U.S., Germany, and the rest of Eu­rope, plus Australia.) And what dominates is an argument between ’70s plu­ralism and ’80s Neo-Expressionism’s national strains which rarely transcends its good, but complicated, intentions.

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Compared to recent European shows like “Zeitgeist,” this is an admirable attempt at an unbiased survey of the international scene without favor to any one style or nation. There has clearly been an attempt to include more women artists. (In fact, women are so astutely fea­tured — a big Elizabeth Murray next to a big Anselm Kiefer and similar juxtaposi­tionings — there seems to be more of them than usual; there are in fact only 14, or less than 10 per cent.) Also, unlike the European habit, this show is largely un­sanctioned by elder statesmen such as Beuys, Warhol, Twombly, or Stella: over half of these artists are under 40, many under 30. Thus the museum’s faith in the present and future is imbued with an American egalitarian look which proba­bly drives Europeans and would-be art stars up the wall. Many people will blame the one-work-per-artist/broad-overview formula as the culprit. But actually, even with its current framework, this exhibi­tion could have been much better. The possible corrections run the gamut from being entirely within McShine’s control, to being endemic to the museum.

First of all, this is an exhibition which, in attempting to please many different points of view, seems simply to have lost its sense of direction. There are easily 30 or 40 artists who could be eliminated from its rolls and never be missed. As it is, there are almost as many who will probably be overlooked due to the ex­treme crowding.

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Also, regardless of possible disagree­ments with the selection of individual works and artists, one has come to expect from McShine a kind of argument via installation which, after three viewings, seems to be missing here. He has inter­mittently matched things up but mostly studiously avoided the temptation (which in a less diverse show would prob­ably be commendable) — as if he wants us to see everything in isolation, for its own inherent value. It is revealing to see Oli­ver Jackson and Roberto Juarez grouped with Zakanitch and MacConnell; what seems to be the “humor” gallery of Mark Tansey, Steve Gianakos, General Idea, Italo Scanga, and Komar and Melamid is a bit obvious (and nonvisual, actually), but more of these kinds of juxtapositions are needed. It would have been instructive to see the Dutch expressionist Armando next to Susan Rothenberg, or Toon Verhoef next to Howard Hodgkin, or Ed Paschke next to Jack Goldstein.

Mostly the discrepancy in ceiling heights between the two floors of the ex­hibition seems to have been one of the primary placement determinants, result­ing in an unfortunate hierarchy of size — smaller works too often crowded together upstairs, larger ones more spaciously in­stalled below. Walking into the lower lev­el galleries it is clear how working in large size is (a) the best defense against curato­rial whim and (b) too often the only thing that Neo-Expressionism has going for it.

There are very few surprises — a beauti­ful Gerhard Richter, a startling Ger van Elk, a suite of Blinky Palermo’s small abstractions, but seldom do we encounter first-rate works under first-rate circum­stances. The grouping of paintings by Murray, Kiefer, Neil Jenney, Malcolm Morley, Francesco Clemente, and Sigmar Polke at the front of the lower gallery is the one exception, the show’s only exhilarating vista. Some of McShine’s new dis­coveries from abroad seem worthwhile: the English sculptor Richard Deacon, the Austrian Christian Ludwig Attersee, the Swiss team of Fischli and Weiss. But, although this show is overloaded with artists from the U.S., few Americans in the just-emerging range seem to have received comparable scrutiny. One can think of several auspicious debuts from the past few years in both one-person and group shows — Ira Richer, Carroll Dun­ham, Nancy Mitchnick, Nancy Dwyer, Barry Ledoux, Jeff Koons among them­ — unfortunately overlooked.

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In general, the show is on firm footing where consensus is bowed to, but it often falters on less predictable terrain. Other problems afflict its all-over impact as well, a major one being that artists are not always represented by outstanding efforts. (The barely average 1981 paint­ing by David Salle, in view of his recent triumphs, seems particularly unfortu­nate.) And Tony Shafrazi’s sin against Guernica seems to have made his artists untouchable. While one can sympathize wholeheartedly with the museum’s desire for revenge of some sort — this probably does the show more harm than good. A few raunchy graffiti artists would have been preferable to the quasi-graffiti cor­ner of Rainer Fetting, Helmut Middendorf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Bruce McLean, and miles ahead of the truly pernicious academic mannerism of Carlo Maria Mariani — a mode of behavior the museum should no more endorse than Shafrazi’s.

In any event, to leave Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf out of what is clearly acknowledged as a survey of disparate current styles is inaccurate. This is not a show so much about standards as data; as a friend said, it should probably have been called “More Information.” (Along this line of thought, the low number of women is even more offensive: once more, men are shown to have a greater right to be just average and representative than women.)

Despite the diversity of this show, its most lasting impression is that Neo-Expressionism is easily the most interna­tional, easily disseminated style since Conceptualism — only more so due to its greater marketability. The older Germans have spawned younger ones who make them look good; and the effects of the Italians, especially Chia, can be seen from Spain to Australia. The way Neo-­Expressionism hooks into a widespread figurative mediocrity which has hovered beyond the fringe ever since the Mod­ern’s own “New Images of Man” exhibi­tion in the late ’50s only speeds up the process.

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Comparing “Information” to this cur­rent survey is a lesson in how profoundly the times have changed since the early ’70s, but the difference need not have been so great. McShine would have been truer to the present and recent past to include more of Conceptualism’s descen­dants — artists who, starting out in the late ’70s, insinuated both its criticality and its use of photography back into ob­ject making, back into visual experience.

The limitation of this exhibition to painting and sculpture is not strictly ad­hered to — there are actually a fair amount of large drawings and small in­stallations here and there. But the exclu­sion of established and promising artists currently extending the role of photography and the media in the arts — Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Le­vine, Richard Prince, and James Case­bere, among others — is undoubtedly the show’s biggest problem. It is more or less completely out of Kynaston McShine’s hands, for it stems from the museum’s traditional compartmentalization of me­diums, a compartmentalization which, with the new expansion, is only reinforced. This, more than any other short­coming of a handsome, wide-ranging show, gives hints of the problems the museum may have in housing the art of the late 20th century under its new roof. ❖