Jun 30, 2009

If you're lonely


Martin Creed, Work No. 958, 2008, Acrylic on canvas, 30" x 24" x 3/4".

I admire Martin Creed's artwork, with its bombastic silliness. But I wasn't aware of his writing until a friend pointed it out (thanks Stephen). Things like this:

Sometimes people say: 'What the fuck do you think you're doing? That's not art.
I say: 'Fuck off, assholes!'

Assholes... they are something to get excited about, something to work for.

The text continues in this vein. Its hilarious. From Martin Creed's work #470 (read the full text)

La Biennale


Show Highlight

The Collectors - in the Danish and Nordic Pavilion

Don't Miss

The huts at the back of the Arsenale - hard to find but worth the trouble.

The Ukraine pavilion - kitchy and fun.

AES+F's video The Feast of Trimalchio in Unconditional Love at Arsenale Novissimo (take the free shuttle ferry at the end of the Arsenale).

The question on many minds at the 2009 Venice B was how the director Daniel Birnbaum would perform. Birnbaum accepted the appointed in April 2008, and some undoubtedly felt sympathy for the new director, who took charge under tempestuous circumstance, with only 14 months to organize the mammoth event.

Robert Storr had been commissioned to direct both the 2007 and 2009 Venice Biennale, but after a clash with the organizers, he pulled out of this years show, leading to a scramble. For my part, I was saddened we didn't see Robert Storr's part deux. It would have been fascinating to compare a before-crash 2007 Biennale with an after-crash 2009 Biennale directed by the same person... How would Storr have reflected this change? We will never know.

Did Birnbaum succeed? In my opinion the answer is yes. At the Arsenale and the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini (now renamed the Palazzo delle Esposizioni), Birnbaum started with large-scale and bold installations - by Lygia Pape, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Wade Guyton/Kelley Walker, Tomas Saraceno, and Massimo Barteloni. These giant works set the tone for much of what was to follow - a focus on aesthetic play and use of space, a deflection of any obvious political readings, and a mixture of old as well as new. Lygia Pape, who died in 2004, was one of 13 dead artists in the 90-artist exhibition, an unusually high percentage for a contemporary art show. It was a bold start.

Installation by Lygia Pape, from artnet.

Birnbaum has drunk the koolaid of pluralism, and his show reflected a diverse range of interests. Still, there was less of the political gravitas and shock factor of Storr's show - no videos of human skulls being used as footballs, for example - and virtually no grand abstract painting - no Gerhard Richter's this time. The tone of much of the curated exhibition was light and humorous, though without sacrificing substance.

In the national pavilions, there has been much chatter about Liam Gillick, a British artist, installed as the sole occupant of the German pavilion. Some saw this as a call for the end of nationhood - the national pavilions have long been viewed as anarchonistic. But putting a white male British artist in the German pavilion felt tame to me - this move does very little to undermine national sovereignty.

ELMGREEN & DRAGSET "death of a collector" @La Biennale 2009, Photo by Strifu

Instead of Gillian's taxidermied cat in the German pavilion, I was more drawn to Maurizio Cattelan's taxidermied dog, part of The Collectors, a joint collaboration between the Danish and Nordic Pavilions, organized by the artists Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset (photos here or here). The dog is listening to its master's voice - a groaning modernist sculpture, both comical and eerie. The Collectors was for me the strongest statement in the Biennale, even to the extent of upstaging Birnbaum's giant show. It represented a complex collaborative model between nations and individuals. It was less straightforward than the blunt bi-nationalism proposed in Germany's pavilion. The entrance signaled what was in store - a real estate "For Sale" sign was cockily planted in front of the Danish pavilion (apparently, you can book an appointment for a tour with an estate agent). Inside the pavilions, Elmgreen & Dragset had "staged" over twenty artists - meaning that some elements of the show were artworks and others were set dressing. Was the poster near the entrance an artwork? You decide.

The Collectors had a didactic narrative element. The two pavilions represented the homes of two fictional art collectors. In front of the Nordic pavilion, a swimming pool held a floating mannequin representing the owner, a writer who had committed suicide. Visitors were invited to lie on the bed, sit in the chairs and otherwise occupy the house, introducing a participatory element. The artworks themselves were solid, unashamedly homo-erotic, with modernist trappings.

What are we to make of this multi-layered bending of public and private, national, collaborative, staging and art? The Collectors operated on different levels, and I felt compelled to return to it on a second day. The revisit did not disappoint. I saw that on one hand the show could be read as the death of collectors - a symbol perhaps of the collapse of the art market. But it could also be seen as the death of curating.

David Bestué / Marc Vives

Finally, among my favorites in the international exhibition were the videos by David Bestué / Marc Vives. One video showed a horse transforming into a person into a super-hero, all done using costume parts that folded and collapsed. It was a rickety and hilarious. It is hard to find - set at the tail end, in one of the collapsing sheds at the very back of the Arsenale, the video was the opposite of the grand start, and the perfect endnote.

Jun 29, 2009



My talk at the Shortness Symposium at the Tate Modern went well. I had to restrict it to seven minutes long, which was a challenge!

I started by conducting a financial transaction. I had created a small program which displayed a market exchange rate between UK pounds and US dollars, fluctuating over time (a simulated figure based on data from the last three months, replayed much faster). I asked for a volunteer in the audience who wanted to buy two dollars off of me, paying in pounds at the going exchange rate. A woman in the audience agreed. When she said "now" I noted the exchange rate. Then, because I owned no dollars, my next task was to find a source for the dollars. I asked for a volunteer in the audience who happened to have two dollars they were prepared to sell at the going rate. Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) raised his hand (I knew Paul was present, and hoped he might volunteer, but it wasn't prearranged so I was a bit nervous at that point!) I completed my purchase of the two dollars, noting that in the meantime the market exchange rate had fallen. The result: I sold two dollars at one rate, purchased them a little later when the exchange rate had fallen a little, and made an 8 pence profit.

Selling something you don't own and purchasing it later is a strategy in finance known as a "naked short". It is one of several Short selling practices which aim to make a profit from something going down in value.

A short is the opposite of a long. In a long investment, if you invest a pound in a company, the worst that happens is the company goes bust and you lose your pound. If the company does well, the most your pound can increase is limitless.

Shorts work the other way. If you short a pound, say the company plummets and has a bake sale - the best you can do is to obtain the thing you shorted for free - so the most you can make is a pound. But if you short a company and it suddenly has a surge, at the time you complete the short, you may end up owing a lot. In a short the amount you can owe is potentially limitless. Shorting carries risk, and some investors have been driven into bankruptcy by shorting. Shorting also creates systemic risk - if too many traders short a company, it can drive the company value downwards, even into collapse, with knock-on consequences.

These risks perhaps explain the poor reputation of shorting. According to Wikipedia, the first person to perform a short was a Dutch trader in the 1600s. The other traders took a dim view of his investment tactics and he was banned from trading. The 1929s crash was also blamed on shorts. A regulation called the uptick rule was introduced to restrict shorts in 1929. (President Bush cancelled the uptick regulation).

To summarize, shorting is a bet that something will decrease in value. It is associated with high risk.

What I find fascinating about finance is that, despite its cold logical instrumentality, it contains these moments of innovation, really models of thinking. The short is one such model - a counter-intuitive way to turn a loss into a profit. As an artist, I look for ways these models translate in art.

We can immediately say nearly all art is long. Art is usually invested in its own value and importance. The assumption is that, over time, the value and importance of the artwork increase – How else will it end up in a museum? Which of course is the ultimate goal. Additionally, to survive, artists must sell work. Few artists can afford to see prices pushed down. How could an artist even leverage devaluation?

The short is the epitome of the antisocial, it is a bet against the system, the desire to see things go down. Put this way, we can say the logic of shorting is the logic of iconoclasm. It is the impulse to break things apart and create something new from the pieces. In 1919, the artist Kazimir Malevich talked about burning the museums, burning the Rubens, and creating new ideas from the ashes. A case can be made that the short is to finance what the Avante-garde is to art. It is the attempt to build something in the desert, to produce value through devaluation. It is this attempt which places it at the center as a destabilizing force. Just as the Avante-garde revolves and returns, shorting will remain a part of our future.

Jun 14, 2009



Sri K Pattabhi Jois

Today I went to the New York memorial tribute for Pathabi Jois, a Yoga teacher who died May 18th, age 93. I was fortunate to have studied with Guruji in India on two occasions. They were formative trips, marking the moment in my life when I shifted my focus to art. Guruji was inspiring in many ways. For a leader, he was a man of unusually few words. At the school there was no memorization of texts, rote chanting, led classes, ritual music or services... the kinds of things many people assume take place in a Yoga school. There was daily physical practice, and "conference", a time when people could sit together, often in silence, though Guruji might answer a question or tell a story. Guruji had no interest in trying to convince people to blindly follow a dogma. He was a householder, he didn't run an ashram or demand that students conduct their lives in a fixed way. For Guruji, actions counted. In the physical actions of the asanas he was extremely demanding. He would sometimes shout at me when I made a mistake in a pose. But just as often he would laugh. One time, trying to get my body into a pose, he said "perhaps not this lifetime!" and chuckled loudly, "but no problem, next lifetime." He believed that what mattered was to to keep the focus on what is just in front of you, and then try and try again. Rather than teaching from the pulpit he led by example - giving instruction in physical yoga practice six days a week, getting up before dawn, and rarely missing a day for 70 years. He led an extraordinary life.

Jun 10, 2009

NYFA Fellowship


Many thanks to NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts) for selecting me as a recipient of a 2009 NYFA Fellowship award. It is a prestigious art award that comes with a $7000 grant. This year 134 fellows were chosen from over 3,600 applicants. The grant is "unrestricted" (it doesn't have to be used to a specific project) - which makes it particularly welcome just now. You can read the announcement here.

Jun 8, 2009

Bushwick and Vikings


Stephen Truax, Untitled, gouache on stretched paper, 8.5 x 11 in., 2008

I was in Bushwick over the weekend at the Bushwick Open Studios. If you missed this event, make sure to look for the version next year. Getting there was a hassle since the L train was not running, but I'm glad I went, its the most fun art event I've had in NY. It was really well organized, with around 250 participating artists/groups/events.

The show ranged from non-profit galleries like Austin Thomas‘ Pocket Utopia and Norte Maar, to group shows, to individual artists - some showing in purpose built studio spaces, others in their homes. Stephen Truax was presenting from his home studio - he uses geometric forms but with hand brush strokes, which I found a refreshing departure from the pervasive masked-tape technique.

I had one of my new Shopping Cart works in a group show called Viking Mountain Funeral, curated by Kathleen Smith and Eric Ayote. The show hung together well and was well presented, and Eric and Kathleen were a pleasure to work with. All together a great weekend.