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PETER FRANK

LETTER TO NEW YORK:
BIENNIALS, FAIRS, AND
HOTEL INTIMACY


Saluti tutti!

No, I’m not in Venice right now--well, I’m a few blocks from Venice, CA, but at significantly further remove from Venice, IT. For several weeks people kept asking me, so, are you going to Venice? And now people are asking, why aren’t you in Venice (or, why aren’t you in Venice)? As if it’s imperative that one attend the Biennale de Venezia, especially at its vernissage. (Actually, the Biennale doesn’t have an “opening reception,” it just has a first-day-during-which-the-press-is-especially-invited-and-everybody-else-shows-up-too.) The parties are all at the peripheries, in consulates, special exhibition spaces (usually having no official connection to the Biennale), etc. Mega-surveys--at least the ones I’ve attended--tend to be like that; the German quadrennial documenta, for instance, doesn’t have parties, it simply opens with a press conference. (Maybe the Biennale does too, but I never found one.) These affairs are simply too big to “entertain” visitors, even Very Important Visitors; you come, you see, you run into people. (Let’s see, I think that would translate as vinas, vidas, ciaobellas.) Quite frankly, I get enervated simply thinking about – or remembering – such events. Too many people, not enough food.



Anderson & Low, “Battersea Power
Station, London”, 2003, photograph.
Exhibition at Apex Fine Art (West
Hollywood) is part of the
Absolut/L.A. International.




Raul Cordero, "The Rolling Landmark,"
Las Vegas-style sign in video
documentary. Exhibition at Iturralde
Gallery (West Hollywood) is part of the
Absolut/L.A. International.




Blex Bolex, "Ubu Ru," 1995. Exhibition at
Track 16 (Santa Monica) is part of the
Absolut/L.A. International.
Now, our, er, Biennial throws a bash. It’s small enough to, it’s new enough to, and it’s sponsored enough to. The Absolut/L.A. International Biennial is not simply an excuse for hoopla, it is a platform for hoopla. Said hoopla, however, should not, does not, and is certainly not meant to supplant or obscure the essence of the thing: umpty-nine galleries in the greater Los Angeles area present international artists in their summer programming, and sign on to the art scene’s answer to “We Are the World” (or, with Disney ever more a cultural presence hereabouts, “It’s A Small World After All”). The Absolut/L.A. International is the contrapositive of the Venice Biennale, or the São Paulo Bienal, or the Biennial of Sydney or Johannesburg or Dakar or Kwangju or Sharjah. (For five points apiece, name the countries in which these biennials take place, without atlas or Google search.) Absolut/L.A. is entirely a sum of parts, it’s an entirely commercial--or, if you would, meta-commercial--venture, it has no overarching program, no curator or director, and only the loosest framework for selection. In many respects it is invisible. It’s not a Biennial per se, it’s a multi-gallery event that takes place biannually. For something Absolut, it’s quite relativ. The tote bags, however, are more durable than what you get in Venice.

Something else the Absolut/L.A. International ain’t is an art fair--although, again, it does seem to be the idea of an art fair turned inside out. Instead of myriad galleries from all over the globe under one roof, it’s a number of galleries under their own roofs showing art from all over the globe. So our Biennial is both fish and fowl, except no fins or feathers. And it serves up the same juice a Biennial or art fair does, but in different-size glasses. (Shot glasses, if you’re not a designated driver.)

Does this obviate L.A.’s need for a “real” Biennial? Or, perhaps more to the point, for a “real” art fair? With regard to a true Biennial, the jury is out. The multi-arts festival that accompanied the `84 Olympics and recurred twice thereafter--a high profile, centrally coordinated but not dictated galaxy of events--was appropriate to a place like Los Angeles, which resists physical centrality or stylistic continuity. It would be nice to have such a festival recur on, say, a five-year basis (making it a Quintennial). Too bad the last one, lo these thirteen years ago, was enough of a hash to squelch everybody’s enthusiasm but mine. (Actually, economics and politics blew it out of the water; between recession and Rodney King, we had to face the fact we’re no Edinburgh. If we were to resuscitate that festival, it would have to be after the current recession blows over. As well, it would be mounted in the shadow of terrorism, as well as Homeland Security’s counterterrorist measures. This time around, Cubans wouldn’t be the only participants with visa problems.)

But does the Biennial supplant a “real” art fair here? After all, for a while L.A. had quite a credible fair down there in the Convention Center, attracting substantial exhibitors from Houston to Hong Kong. And it’s been missed ever since. “Big tent” fairs are fun--exhausting but, at their best, also exhilarating. But are they still viable in this economic--and political--climate? The jury’s out on that one, too. The Eurold guard--Basel, Cologne, Paris--is still going strong, and newer, mid-size fairs such as Berlin and New York’s Armory seem to be making a go of it. But enough of these commercial expositions have run into trouble or even foundered over the last decade to make one suspect their heyday has passed.

The big-ticket fair the Basel folks mounted in Miami last December sure seemed a beacon of hope. I haven’t been to a fair that so thoroughly brimmed with energy and quality in light years. But will it sustain? Will its sophomore outing--always the jinx--deliver the same éclat at the end of this year? Also, how much of the fair’s success was in the fair itself, and how much was in the peripheral exhibits and events? Certainly, the most stimulating thing about “Basel/Miami” was Miami itself, with its young and burgeoning art scene (reminding me of Los Angeles circa 1982) ready to put its best feet forward and, in the process, to party non-stop for a week. No doubt, they can do it again, and can work with the Basel folk to overcome first-year glitches and miscalculations (which did not seem all that numerous, anyway). But will the fair succeed again simply as a fair?

The alternatives in the last decade or so, I don’t have to remind you, have been the mini-fairs that are mounted in hotel rooms or, conversely, empty spaces in large commercial buildings. Much of their charm is in the incongruity of their surroundings, an incongruity that makes (even in the vast carpetlessness of an office tower’s 13th floor) for a giddy intimacy. But we’re used to it all now; is it still special? Actually, no: such fairs need to stay clever, but must rely more and more on their participants to keep them clever.


Visitors descend on the Kassel
site of document 11 last year.
Photo courtesy documenta.







“Art Positions,” aerial view of art in shipping containers exhibition, part of the first Art Basel Miami Beach fair held last year.
Photo courtesy Art Basel Miami Beach.
I get the feeling the people running the –scope fair [to be held at the downtown Standard Hotel July 18-21—Ed.] are hip to that fact; the two fairs I’ve already seen them mount have featured young, imaginative, and highly motivated dealers from hither and yon. Since their first outing a year and a half ago in New York (which flew under so many people’s radars), the –scopists have hit upon a hit upon a strategy that seems safer than it actually is: mount a hotel fair at the same time in the same town as a larger art- fair(-ish) event.



Gallery Owner Christopher Cutts of Toronto shows sculpture by Richard Stipl to collectors at –scope’s 2002 Miami fair at the Townhouse Hotel. This hotel fair lands in L.A. this month.
Photo courtesy –scope.
There was a –scope fair in Miami within walking distance of the Big One (and practically overlooking both the beach and the big fair’s own hip annex, several “younger” galleries ensconced in shipping containers). The second New York –scope coincided, as you know, with the latest Armory show, which is itself turning into a big enough deal as (bigger) fairs go. And, as you may not know, the current chapter of –scope occurs here, the weekend after the International Biennial kicks in, in loose cooperation with it and with the art institutions near its downtown base. (The opening-night reception benefits MOCA, and –scope has established ties with other cultural institutions and the Chinatown galleries.)

You missed the first –scope fair, and I missed this year’s New York –scope-in. Never mind the Duck Soup “Thursday was a doubleheader, everybody stayed home” routine; how’d the second compare with the first? The Miami –scope had a higher energy than the original NY fair, but I found the latter more interesting (perhaps because my attention in Miami was being pulled at by so many other spectacles). The L.A. outing should test –scope’s ability to address not simply an occasion, as in Miami, but a locale (other than home). They are coming in with a reservoir of goodwill left by the late, lamented Gramercy/Marmont fair, and if they can bring in that kind of pizzazz without the thick coating of attitude--the one aspect of Gramercy/Marmont that got old--they’ll be a winner out here. They’d certainly profit from our disturbing lack of any larger fair, as could the more conservative but homegrown--and growing--L.A. Art Show, coming up for its ninth go ‘round this October.

I guess that would make –scope the winner of our discontent.

You saw that coming.

You’ll see me coming later this summer. I want to go to the Central Park Zoo with you guys again. If I can’t visit the lions of Venice, I’ll check out those of Fifth Avenue. So gird your lions.

Gotcha.
-- P.