Missing Pieces

Ramallah, Palestine

Poet Asmaa’ Azaizeh performing Rabih Mroué’s Make Me Stop Smoking, 2006. (All photos: Gökcan Demirkazik)

LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN’S BIRDWATCHING was supposed to kick off the opening days of the Sharjah Biennial 13 Off-Site Project in Ramallah.

It was not possible.

I had seen him deliver a version of this lecture-performance in March in Sharjah. Abu Hamdan wove a beautifully multilayered yet distressing narrative around the political implications of hearing and suggested that sonic forensics could help reconstruct otherwise incommunicable episodes of horror—from the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the Syrian military–administered Saydnaya Prison near Damascus—in the service of justice. As a Lebanese national cannot travel to Israeli-occupied territories, he was going to perform by phone, remotely controlling the laptop before us at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC).

Yet his voice kept breaking and the connection was lost several times. There was little point to finishing a performance on sound amid these interruptions. Curator Lara Khaldi, in charge of the SB13 Ramallah Off-Site Project, called the event off, saying, “Perhaps Lebanese artists have to be here physically.”

Indeed, a whole host of Lebanese artists and art professionals could not make it to Ramallah—including the curator of this edition of the Sharjah Biennial, Christine Tohmé. Rabih Mroué had taken the unprecedented step, for him, of training someone else—the Haifa-based poet Asmaa’ Azazieh—to present a miniretrospective of his lecture-performances, and a joint paper by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti was read by Hanan Toukan and Lara Khaldi. Substitution got the job done, but it also rendered the obligatory absences more flagrant, more menacing.

Left: Artists Michael Rakowitz and Robert Chase Heishman with Aline Khoury, programs coordinator of Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art. Right: Artist Khalil Rabah and Sharjah Art Foundation’s deputy director Reem Shadid.

Long before my arrival I had felt, as well as understood, the connotations of underground artivism in the title “Shifting Ground.” Thanks to my Turkish passport, any mention of the West Bank—let alone the Sharjah Art Foundation, funded by Israel’s state enemy, the UAE—could put my Israeli visa application (without which, ironically, I could not travel to Ramallah) in jeopardy. But once past the infamous checkpoints, the improbable, counterintuitive spiral of Sharjah “inside” Ramallah “inside” Israel disappeared amid the many absurdities that constitute Palestinians’ everyday lives. Ramallah’s neoliberal, consumer-driven transformation has hardly normalized traces of the occupation, and this contrast proved fertile ground for taking a step back and reconsidering the implications of how earth came to be romanticized after the loss of the Palestinian sovereignty over their homeland, as Khaldi put it in her opening speech.

Against the expansive tyranny of geopolitics, Khaldi’s “Shifting Ground” covered as little space as possible: Eight newly commissioned publications (two in draft stage, another yet to come) were stacked in square niches, formed by two topographic models carved from a single, massive piece of stone—the work of designer and architect brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas—at the core of KSCC. An accompanying symposium upstairs, co-organized by Rana Anani and Yara Saqfalhait, served to “illuminate” these publications and introduce other relevant topics for discussion.

The Off-Site Project in Ramallah was a largely local affair that responded to the urgencies of its context with robust participation and attendance from Palestinian artists and professionals––from institutions such as the Al Ma’mal Foundation and Riwaq––who might cross several checkpoints every day to come to KSCC from Jerusalem. Besides a handful of Americans already living in Palestine or engaged in projects here (Casey Asprooth-Jackson, Jake Davidson, and Michael Rakowitz and his crew), most of the foreigners on-site were those on the symposium program (Keller Easterling, Filipa César, Chiara De Cesari, and Doreen Mende) and some members of the international press (Nicola Gray, ArtAsiaPacific’s H. G. Masters, and Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian).

Left: Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh and Suhad Daher-Nashif. Right: Critic and writer Adila Laďdi-Hanieh and art historian Hanan Toukan.

The first couple of lectures, featuring academics Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh and Suhad Daher-Nashif, tackled the charged topic of Palestinian cemeteries, including secret “cemeteries of numbers,” where bodies of Palestinian martyrs are buried close to the earth’s surface by Israelis, with only numbers for headstones. Calling them “an archive to abrogate the past,” Daher-Nashif also addressed martyrs’ “social role,” what happens when their bodies are returned to their families, and how agency over one’s own (or a loved one’s) death can constitute an act of resistance.

Presentations in the afternoon, on the other hand, were marked by an observational yet coolly playful approach to the built or “natural” environment: With Atlas Group–like twists, Inas Halabi “performed” her publication Lions Warn of Futures Present, crafting stories around the Israeli-generated excess of radioactive Cessium-137 in Hebron, Palestine. She used red filters—their tone proportional to the area’s activity—when photographing the Hebron wastelands, evincing a desire to engage the landscape while preserving distance. Benji Boyadgian followed suit, expressing his distaste for what he called “conflict aesthetics.” (“Are we journalists or are we artists?”) He spoke of his book Clogged and of painting big pseudo-Orientalist watercolors of tiny defunct Roman waterways between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Before arak and Shepherds (a Bir Zeit beer) at the local art-gang haunts Radio or Garage, water came to the fore again in Jumana Emil Abboud’s dreamy performance Out of the Shadows, held amid the forlorn fig trees of the KSCC garden. In an atmosphere that recalled a cozy provincial summer cinema, Abboud and her young performer Salma Misyef took turns tenderly narrating a violent folktale with supernatural beings (among them ghouls and djinni) in Arabic and English, as well as painting or drawing over black-and-white acetate photographs of landscapes projected on a standing screen. In the end, they called out names of streams—an important backdrop for the tale—in Palestine, and those who held corresponding stitched nameplates stood up and were bestowed with the significance behind them. “You are Ein Fawar,” Abboud told me, savoring each syllable. “You are in Jerusalem and are inhabited by a good and a bad spirit. One is a free man and the other is a slave.”

Left: Architect and cartoonist Samir Harb. Right: Artist and performance theorist Ray Langenbach.

The last full day of programming considered archival practices and places of memory: Spotlights on Morbid Symptoms—by Mimi Cabell, Samir Harb, and Nicola Perugini—and Subversive Film’s The Syllabus recovered, annotated, and remixed devices of colonial control and methods of insurgence. A whole arc of mnemonic dis- and repossession could be traced from the morning presentations on the 1978 International Art Exhibition for Palestine in Beirut—widely acknowledged as a partially lost “museum in exile”—to the fictional e-flux announcement of a “Last Museum,” that is, “the Museum of all Museums,” in Noor Abuarafeh’s lecture-performance.

There was some contention about whether Palestine could have a museum under occupation. What do you show in a museum about Palestine without reifying it into a romantic, monolithic narrative? Is the act of exhibiting even relevant? And is “relevance” even a necessary or useful goal for the arts?

Last year the Yasser Arafat Museum opened in Ramallah’s Muqata’a as a polished, largely didactic institution with a self-legitimizing, nationalistic discourse (save for Arafat’s headquarters under Israeli siege from 2002 to 2004, meticulously preserved without comment). In less than two weeks, “Jerusalem Lives” would open at the fledgling Palestinian Museum, the first exhibition since the Heneghan Peng–designed building debuted in May. Locals had very little idea about the direction of the museum’s inchoate programming. It didn’t seem so far from Khalil Rabah’s ongoing Broodthaersian museum-fiction Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, begun in 1995, the self-avowed “most extensive cultural institution in Palestine.” Still not in its final form and also a part of the Ramallah Off-Site Project, Rabah’s Draft Guidebook for the museum promised a refreshing critique that ventured outside the museum itself, into the open.

So without much preparation I went north, to Bir Zeit, to see the Palestinian Museum with my own eyes.

Left: Architects Lana Judeh and Keller Easterling. Right: Al-Hoash’s Sahar Qawasmi and artist Nida Sinnokrot.

When I arrived around dusk, it was largely deserted. Yazan Khalili—one of the artists in the inaugural show, and its technical director—and his team were outside, installing a work by Sudarshan Shetty. (Other works, by Athar Jaber and Adrián Villar Rojas, were coming along as well.)

The building itself was closed, so I zigzagged through the expansive, terraced gardens. As I walked downhill, each level revealed a new, cinematic view of the hills opposite, while rich aromas—lavender, mint, jasmine, and sage among them—overwhelmed my senses. I recalled a chapter from Abuarafeh’s commissioned novel “The Earth Doesn’t Tell Its Secrets” – His father once said, in which the opening of a certain “First Museum” without anything on display, just like the Palestinian Museum, is met with confusion and even anger by its early visitors. However, Nisreen, a photographer and friend of the protagonist in charge of documenting the opening reception, eventually discovers that her camera had recorded the works of art on view, which were simply invisible to the naked eye

Even though I feared surrendering to a romantic Orientalism at the sight of this stunning landscape, I began to wonder if this view—impenetrable as a whole but discernible in fragments—was the main show one was meant to see at the still-empty Palestinian Museum. On one of the lowest levels of the garden, amid olive trees glistening at dusk, a sentence from Jumana Emil Abboud’s performance from the night prior echoed in my mind: “No amount of trespassing, occupation, forgetfulness, will drive the pain away.”

Gökcan Demirkazik

Left: Artist Benji Boyadgian. Right: Artist Athar Jaber.

W.I.T.C.H. Way


Artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins in her installation Reason to Be. Photo: Laura Fried.

WHEN I TOUCHED DOWN IN WASHINGTON on a recent Thursday for the third edition of the Seattle Art Fair, the city was uncharacteristically hot and hazy, enveloped in smoke from forest fires raging nearby in Canada.

But even the miasma couldn’t dampen my excitement about visiting the metropolis that loomed so large in my 1990s teen imagination. Seeking some classic Seattle vibes, I quickly made my way to Pike Place Market for a strong coffee and zine browsing at the radical Left Bank Books. The atmospheric conditions rivaled LA at its worst, obscuring the Puget Sound and Jeff Bezos’s Amazon biodomes under construction just a few blocks away. The city is on the precipice of a major swell: The current “crane capital of America,” more than one thousand new residents arrive every week to work at Amazon and related enterprises.

The most prescient work on view, at both the fair and around town, alluded to new forms of collectivism. At the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, a retrospective of Seattle-born artist Doris Totten Chase (1923–2008) pairs her early abstract paintings and wood sculpture with her experimental computer-animated works of the 1970s and 1980s, which she made after moving to New York at age fifty-two. Across campus at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, director Emily Zimmerman mounted “Untold Passage,” a group show on immigration by artists with connections to the Northwest, such as poet Ocean Vuong and artist Mary Ann Peters. At the fair, Peters presented the world is a garden—a large-scale sculpture comprising a cluster of flowers viewed through semitransparent mesh, obliquely referencing her family’s migration from Syria—in collaboration with Seattle’s James Harris Gallery and commissioned as part of the Projects program.

Left: Performer in Ellen Lesperance’s W.I.T.C.H. 1985 in Pioneer Square. Right: Artist Shannon Ebner and Henry Art Gallery associate curator Nina Bozicnik.

In its second year under the leadership of artistic director Laura Fried, a Los Angeles–based independent curator, the Seattle Art Fair included one hundred galleries in the massive CenturyLink Field Event Center. While last year’s public program discussed Northwestern identity, this year the fair focused on forging deeper connections with local institutions. The Frye Art Museum collaborated with the fair to premiere Gerard & Kelly’s Modern Living, projected in a black-box buildout. The two-channel video installation depicts site-specific performances featuring members of the LA Dance Project at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, and the R. M. Schindler House in Los Angeles.

While Gerard & Kelly’s installation probed the history of modernism, the fair delved into the history of Seattle. On the north side of CenturyLink Field, Portland-based artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins concocted the cozy bespoke glass installation Reason to Be in a decommissioned bus station, with a hammock as a space of respite. A few blocks north of CenturyLink, Los Angeles artists Dylan Mira and Erika Vogt created the multimedia installation Pool at Union Station, an unused train station built in the early 1900s that today serves as a public gathering place. (Think of it as a rainy-climate version of New York’s High Line.) Vogt created white foam-based sculptures resembling spa “ruins,” while Mira contributed a three-channel video and cauldron-like vessels filled with flowers and “time-traveling” ingredients such as mugwort. The sculptures suggested stylized luxury in the space of waiting.

Artist Naama Tsabar questioned the architecture of display in her collaborative musical performance Closer, performed inside the fair with the vocalist Fielded (Lindsay Powell) on two sides of a wall. Powell wore a baseball cap, embroidered with the phrase “Women in music are dangerously underrated,” by the very underground designer Keep Brave. Also underrated and dangerous: the powerful backstory of Portland-based Ellen Lesperance’s performance W.I.T.C.H. 1985.

Left: Artist Dino Matt with Amy Adams of Adams and Ollman. Right: Art Agency, Partners’s Matthew Thompson with dealer Shulamit Nazarian.

For several years, Lesperance has been investigating chapters of the feminist group W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), currently active in Portland. She created a series of thirteen cloaks based on a garment worn by one of its members at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an anti-nuclear occupation from 1981 to 2000 in Berkshire, England. Lesperance invited local artists to wear the cloaks and perform at the fair and in nearby Pioneer Square. The former site of the Casino gay bar (one of the first on the West Coast), the gentrifying neighborhood today hosts the homeless along with high-end galleries and shops. Lesperance and her performers marched around with battle-ax-shaped signs, played piccolos, read poems and incantations, and mashed up pigments with a mortar and pestle. At Saturday’s performance, artist Wynne Greenwood (of Tracy and the Plastics) showed up to watch, on her way to riot grrrl mecca, Olympia, Washington.

Back at the fair, Seattle’s recent history figured prominently in an installation of Kurt Cobain’s art and personal effects at UTA Artist Space. The highly anticipated presentation was the art-fair debut for the gallery arm of LA’s United Talent Agency. The booth featured two paintings, a handful of drawings, handwritten lyrics, and a love note from Cobain—including the surrealistic canvas used for the cover of Nirvana’s 1992 compilation Incesticide. UTA secured Cobain’s work through Courtney Love, who couldn’t attend due to a filming conflict. Though Cobain’s paintings weren’t for sale, UTA’s closely hung booth included works by blue-chippers such as Nate Lowman, Josephine Meckseper, Elizabeth Peyton, and Richard Prince.

Another pop-culture icon, Cheech Marin, showed up for his friends Einar and Jamex de la Torre. At the shared booth of Seattle galleries Traver and Koplin Del Rio, the Mexican brothers’ absurdist creations included a glass eyeball sculpture and lenticular prints inspired equally by Alejandro Jodorowsky and underground commix. The brothers’ more-is-more aesthetic drew quite a crowd, but so did more refined offerings. Gisela Colon showed opalescent blow-molded acrylic sculptures at Los Angeles gallery Diane Rosenstein. At Gagosian, heavyweights included neon-tinged prints of mountains by Ed Ruscha and Michael Heizer’s Black Diorite Negative Wall Sculpture, 1992–94, a 5.7-ton rock housed in a steel frame. (One of Heizer’s earliest public commissions, Adjacent, Against, Upon, was made in 1976 for Seattle’s Myrtle Edwards Park. When I visited the park, homeless people had taken shelter under the rocks.)

Left: Artist Ellen Lesperance with installation of W.I.T.C.H. 1985. Right: Artist Gisela Colon.

Works that emphasized craft and process also received enthusiastic responses. Adams and Ollman, located for the past five years in Portland, showed all West Coast works: paintings by outsider artist Marlon Mullen, ceramics by Dino Matt, and Lesperance’s gouaches based on sweaters worn by feminist protesters. Los Angeles’s Roberts & Tilton presented a beaded installation by Jeffrey Gibson along with works by Beyte Saar and Kehinde Wiley. Variations on the theme of political conceptualism-meets-craft could also be seen in Jessica Stockholder’s new works at Chicago gallery Kavi Gupta, Summer Wheat’s acrylic-on-aluminum-mesh paintings at New York’s Fridman Gallery, and Michelle Grabner’s gingham paintings and bronzes in the shape of woven blankets at Portland’s Upfor.

Spirits were high as the fair wrapped up its first full day. Twilight sun bathed the roof of the Thompson Hotel, where Los Angeles’s Night Gallery—first-time participants in the fair—hosted a cocktail hour. Night cofounder Davida Nemeroff mixed with LA friends, collectors, and noted architectural firm Olson Kundig’s principal Jerry Garcia. Across town in Capitol Hill, the Pacific Northwest scene gathered at the hip Bateau, cohosted by Adams and Ollman, PDX Contemporary, and Upfor. Seattle Art Museum curator Catharina Manchanda and Henry Art Gallery curator Nina Bozicnik mingled among the crowd.

“People look and respond on a personal level,” said dealer Amy Adams over oysters and fries at Bar Melusine next door. “It’s not about what museums have.” Sharon Arnold of Seattle gallery Bridge Productions concurred. “The lack of convention allows for a lot of breathing room to be creative,” she said of her hometown. To borrow a catchphrase from Austin, another 1990s cultural capital, let’s hope they can keep it weird in this next great tech boom.

Wendy Vogel

Left: Artist–musicians Sarah Strauss, FIELDED (Lindsay Powell) and Naama Tsabar with Seattle Art Fair artistic director Laura Fried. Right: Head of UTA Fine Arts Josh Roth with painting by Kurt Cobain. (Photo: UTA Fine Arts)

Scottish Rites


Ross Little, The Heavy of Your Body Parts and The Cool Air of the Air Condition, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 42 minutes and 24 seconds. Installation view, Collective, Edinburgh.

BETWEEN THE OPENING OF THE EDINBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL AND THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL, ALONG WITH THE EDINBURGH ART FESTIVAL KICKING UP DUST OF ITS OWN, traffic of both the foot and the vehicular variety converged spiritedly on the efforts of a wide range of art institutions. When the opening of the Art Festival came around on Thursday, July 27, many of the affiliated exhibitions had already been open for days or weeks. Two days prior to kickoff, between bursts of sunshine and rain, I made my way through the street performers and commercial hurrah of the city center to see Jac Leirner’s “Add It Up” at the Fruitmarket Gallery before wandering up Calton Hill, slowly to avoid being out of breath, to the nonprofit gallery Collective to see Ross Little’s film, The Heavy of Your Body Parts and the Cool Air of the Air Condition, 2017, which deconstructs the functions and contingencies of the cruise ship–borne lifestyle of “digital nomads.”

Later, I arranged to meet with Kate Gray, the director of Collective and mastermind of its project to convert the City Observatory into a new gallery complex. Over a cup of tea, Gray pointed out the benefits of the arts festival and its potential to encourage “sector-wide momentum in the city.” Its model remains different from the likes of Documenta or Glasgow International, as the main body of art on view, although under the festival umbrella, is not specifically commissioned and funded by it.

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop's courtyard. Photo: Debi Banerjee.

When the opening night itself came around, I walked from the city center to the end of the former Victorian North British Railway for Charlotte Barker’s first major solo exhibition at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. The venue’s courtyard was full of people drinking wine around a large clay mound, there for use in a series of events accompanying the show. The installation itself is an elegant and somber display of monochrome ceramic works and benches that, like much of the festival, speaks to material and ecological themes. As the sun went down I met up with artist Ewan Murray and curator Grace Johnston, who had taxied from the opening at Inverleith House for “Plant Scenery of the World.”

From flitting around and talking over bottles of Paolozzi beer, it sounded like the once-beleaguered institution’s new show was well-received, but conversation soon drifted to the considerable backlash following its near-closure last year and the subsequent negotiations over a new relationship between the gallery and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Touring the exhibition later in the week with RBGE curator Chloe Reith, I came to understand the difficulty of the undertaking, and her savvy and successful negotiations of institutional politics. With an unfavorable review from the Daily Telegraph still in mind, Reith explained that the exhibition’s complexity reflects the “rich associations” of the garden’s archive and also its “fragmentary nature.”


I spent the following weekend sober while making my way through the buffet of options offered through both the partnered exhibition initiative and the festival’s commissions program. Highlights included Stephen Sutcliffe’s “Sex Symbols in Sandwich Signs” at the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery and Kate Davis’s “Nudes Never Wear Glasses” at the Stills Center for Photography. Although distinct in their themes, with Sutcliffe focusing on masculinity and theatricality while Davis zeroes in on motherhood and work, both artists employ diverse archival materials to develop intricate emotional narratives in film.

The social and ecological themes of Inverleith House’s exhibition complement the commissioned works program, which this year had the mandate of responding to renaissance man Patrick Geddes’s text The Making of the Future: A Manifesto and a Project (1917). In the Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden, located on the south side of Edinburgh Castle, was a temporary studio building, surrounded by kids eating toasted marshmallows with festival volunteers. This is an urban incarnation of Bobby Niven’s “Bothy Project,” which constructs, through various collaborations, structures for art residencies. Here, it reactivates Geddes’s original green space, allowing for fresh public engagement.

I have standing plans to drive to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, 1966, in the Pentland Hills, and then further, to remind myself that “little walks by purling streams in meadows and through cornfields, thickets etc. are delightful entertainments,” as one work in Finlay’s plot proclaims––words which certainly complement Geddes’s emphasis on locality and contact with nature.

Bobby Niven's Palm House, 2017, at the Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden.

Calum Sutherland

Dog Days of Summer

New York

Rulo on Paul Vinet's Fountain. (Photo: Rhonda Lieberman)


Last Sunday my dog Rulo and I caught the final afternoon of dOGUMENTA, a three-day event promoted as “America’s first art show for dogs,” organized by NYC-based art critic Jessica Dawson and Mica Scalin, a creative development consultant and partner at Another Limited Rebellion, an art and innovation studio.

It was a slick operation, as one would expect in a highly branded environment like the Waterfront Plaza at Brookfield Place, a luxury retail and housing development on the North Cove Marina. Dog-friendly art aficionados might recall Brian Jungen’s elaborate Dog Run designed for Documenta 13 in 2012, in Kassel, where lucky pups romped in the idyllic Karlsaue Park on structures riffing on Mies’s modernism.

In contrast to that more aesthetic scenario, dOGUMENTA had the vaguely cheesy vibe of an arty attraction where canine and human visitors were subtly hustled along a course of ten dog-friendly installations from entrance tent to exit tent, where reps from TD Bank offered dogs water, a bag of treats, TD Bank collapsible water bowls, and a “thank you for stopping by.” It’s the public-art quandary du jour: how not to throw out the aesthetic baby with the bathwater of audience engagement and crowd control. I’m not sure dOGUMENTA managed to do that. But it was fun, and I celebrate interspecies communion.

For humans, handouts provided user-friendly blurbs explaining each piece and its appeal to dogs. (I had debated whether to schlep the dog, in a taxi, but I’m so glad I did. Sans dog at this event, I’d feel like a childless lurker at a playground.)

Patrolling the scene, Dawson was a woman with a mission and a shtick, which she regaled me with as I took out my notebook:

She had been experiencing overload, as one does in the art world if one actually reads the ocean of press releases in one’s inbox. It gets harder and harder to see (or even want to see!) the work. Enter rescue-pup Rocky, a Morkie, through whom Dawson rebirthed her engagement with Art and was seized with evangelical fervor to “give back to the canine community.”

I recalled Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not of seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

It was like that for Dawson and the Morkie.

Gallery-going with Rocky, “life and art were one,” she enthused. With a Carl Andre, for instance, “he just went and sat on it, vibrating with pleasure. He doesn’t have the inhibitions like we do. I just admired the way he went straight up to the work, his fearlessness. We can learn from Rocky—this dog has something to teach me about looking: art and life were one.”

(I silently empathized how tedious it is to hit one’s mark with the press every time while she pressed on.)

“[You know] on Twenty-Second Street that Beuys piece––we see it all the time but we don’t see it anymore. Rocky has been there a hundred times—every time we walk by, the Joseph Beuys piece is fresh. He takes it in as sculpture-in-the-round, and, yes, he pees, and that’s a kind of art criticism—marking—like I’m buying it at auction: ‘It’s mine.’ You and I, we see a Jeff Koons and roll our eyes”— Ha! Her too?—“but for Rocky, Koons is always new, always fresh. This is how Rocky inspired me and now it’s time to give back to the canine community!”

She gestured at Eric Hibit’s Harmony in Blue and Yellow (Balls in Suspension): “Colors dogs can see—they can’t see red.” And at the Paul Vinet Fountain, where dogs are invited to pee, “with their natural interest in mark making,” a riff on Warhol’s “Oxidation” paintings. And at “the olfactory aspect” of Dana Sherwood’s piece, with dog patisserie on pedestals, “which introduces the tension between owner and pet, who’s allowed to eat and when.”

In galleries, Dawson would lift up Rocky to see art at (human) eye-level. Happily, here all pieces were doggy height. The curator credited “Rocky’s input on studio visits (where) he was hand-in-paw with us.” When he sat on a pink miniature sofa in Graham Caldwell’s studio, “That is it, we said, that’s the piece.”

As the recipient of her ardent talking points, I felt like I was being “marked.” No doubt subliminally, since everything vaguely smelled of pee. (Bonus for the dogs!) Promotional crassness was alleviated by the ebullient pups and their humans, frantically dogumenting their pet at the event, which, like all art these days, was a collective photo shoot for social media.

Rulo participates in Kathryn Cornelius's Sit, Stay, Heal. (Photo: Rhonda Lieberman)

Charlotte, a brown “lab mix, mostly hound,” enjoyed Sherwood’s food sculptures shaped like “Victorian-era tiered” confectionary. “Hungry little critter,” chuckled her dad. “She’s a chubby.” While other dogs were diffident, perhaps questioning the work, Charlotte was busy chomping away chunks.

“Is this her first art exhibition?” I was impressed.

“She’s eating it up!”

Apollo, a dashing black dog with red sunglasses, proudly strutted through the space off-leash, which wasn’t allowed, but he was so charismatic he pulled it off. I later saw him promenading on the stunning marina, charming everyone, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance and gleaming white boats bobbing in the dock: “This is rich Wall Street money,” a gentleman in a caftan explained to his family, observing the scene from a park bench.

The joyfulness of dOGUMENTA was indeed in how people shared the works—or just life—with their pups and, yes, like the awakened Dawson, tuned into canine joie de vivre. Doggos are social beasts: They love to paw-ticipate. And people love to document it all to “share,” busily snapping away so we can mark the internet like a vast virtual fire hydrant.

Rulo was just happy to hang out. (I had to place him on the Vinet piece to get that shot.) He was most taken with a Westie named Scotty. He waggled and gave him the old ear sniff, which meant his intentions were serious. Whenever we crossed paths, I felt like we were creeping on that dog because I knew . . . (he wasn’t the only dog cruising dOGUMENTA).

After Scotty, he really dug our time with performance artist/reiki master Kathryn Cornelius. Her installation Sit, Stay, Heal featured cushions, fluffy fleece throws, and reiki-charged stones in a large bowl of water: It was a meditation area bordered by branches gathered “from upstate, with her arms, like a dog would” (per Dawson).

“It’s like Burning Man. Awesome!” cooed a basic with vocal fry and a Yorkie named Jax.

Along with Bronte, a moppy type (named for the novelist), Bruce, a rat terrier, and their mothers, Rulo and I participated in a human-canine energy session led by Cornelius, radiant in a white jumpsuit and oozing positive vibes. I ran a crystal along Rulo’s chakras, massaged him with lavender oil, and chanted intentional, soothing words to clear our auras. By the end of the session, even in the blazing sun, in the hectic bowels of the Financial District, Rulo was completely blissed out. Until that point, he was more engaged with the general scene than any particular piece. Then I realized he simply prefers performance art.

Or OMG, is my dog a closet Burner?

Rhonda Lieberman

Naked Truth

Water Mill, New York

Left: Artists Robert Wilson Francesco Clemente. Right: Robert Downey Jr. (All photos: Kat Herriman)

MAJOR KUDOS TO THE WELL-HEELED GUESTS who attended the Watermill Center benefit on an unseasonably chilly July night. The step-and-repeat, which wound from the main road down to the nonprofit’s rolling campus, was an eveningwear obstacle course: paths of giant pine needles, steep grassy stairs, and a stretch of river rock, not to mention large installations by Jared Madere and Miles Greenberg.

I walked back and forth three times. Not once did I see a fall, not even in Raúl de Nieves and Erik Zajaceskowski’s temporary sound-cave installation, where a floor of large stones acted as a musical instrument and a hazard for stilettos.

“Did you see anyone trip?” I asked de Nieves from the safety of the other side. “If they did I couldn’t see them,” he laughed, referring to the identity-blurring masks that he and Zajaceskowski wore during their performance as Somos Monstros. “We wanted to greet people with sound. We were unavoidable, we were instruments.”

That night, artists popped up in seemingly every corner of Robert Wilson’s bucolic Hamptons compound. On my way into the forest, I ran into Misha Kahn, a first-timer and a fan. “Within the first thirty seconds, we already had two selfies with two different nudes,” he said, before disappearing into the sun’s rays.

Nudity speckled the evening. There were bodies covered in gold leaf, fake fungi, and bananas. In the auction tent, artist Dana Davenport painted Korean letters in her birthday suit, on hands and knees, for a voyeuristic piece titled 흑인 (heugin)—black person, 2017. Around her mural, guests gawked and protected their silent auction bids.

I found Paula Cooper admiring the donations. It was her first time in Watermill in years. “I am so impressed by the amount of programming they do,” Cooper said. “Everything is perfect. The forest, the work, the sunset.”

Left: Artists Raúl de Nieves and Erik Zajaceskowski. Right: Claude Grunitzky.

A purple horizon cued dinner, which was served in a big-top tent. As everyone tucked into appetizers, Wilson took the mic. The four hundred or so guests sat in anticipatory silence. “We built a wall before Donald Trump,” Wilson said. Then another pregnant pause. The director was referring to a large wall in the foundation’s rocky yard. Emblazoned on one side was a text by Jenny Holzer: SHE OUTWITS HIM / SHE OUTLIVES HIM.

Wilson shared that Holzer’s piece was designed for Times Square but had been deemed too political. “We love it,” he proclaimed. The director then invited the evening’s artists to the stage. “We are proud to have twenty-six countries represented here!”

Claude Grunitzky, the new president of the Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation, echoed Wilson’s sentiments. “I feel like we could be doing so much more and plugging into the local community,” Grunitzky said. “Quite frankly, I think we need to be dealing with some of the segregation issues we see out here in the Hamptons, where we have the Hispanics on one side, and the African Americans on the other, and the wealthy privileged on another. I want to bring everyone together through the art and education.”

Grunitzky and I ducked back inside at just the right moment. Wilson was soliciting money from the crowd, standing between honorees Isabelle Huppert and Laurie Anderson. After making a $5,000 donation, Robert Downey Jr. surprised the room by jumping up and egging the crowd on: “I’m going to need see some hands at each table or I am going to get crazy.” When threats didn’t work, the actor offered selfies for cash.

“I thought I was out of a job,” declared auctioneer Simon de Pury.

Anderson and Virgil Abloh finished the night with back-to-back performances. “The future of art and the way it interacts with culture is being determined by events and curators like this,” Abloh said, revealing his preparations for a 2019 show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art with chief curator Michael Darling. “There is an interest in what is happening in the real world.”

Kat Herriman


Cosmic Thing

Los Angeles

Erik Frydenborg's sculptures at the Mount Wilson observatory's visitor center. (All photos: Eden Batki for KNOWLEDGES)

FOR SOME PERSPECTIVE, SOME ART: In 1917, the year Duchamp signed a urinal, the one-hundred-inch reflecting telescope on Mount Wilson saw what astronomers lovingly call “first light.” The cost of a certain Basquiat would build the so-named Hooker telescope and dome ten times over. Its famous mirror alone took five years to coat and polish—as long as a Koons balloon dog.

But to really get a feel for the instrument that bounced light at the retinas of Edwin Hubble and Albert Einstein, and that first gauged the redshift of our expanding universe and peeped a galaxy beyond our own—it helps to see it up close.

Recently I got my chance: As part of a two-day festival of art and stars that organizer Christina Ondrus called KNOWLEDGES, the telescope’s vaulted steel chapel was home to a new composition by artist Scott Benzel. The audience sat gaping at that big periwinkle-blue tube on its goliath gray mounts, built with the sturdy confidence of an ocean liner, all riveted and fresh. Then the stories-high dome’s doors groaned apart; Benzel stood and struck an anvil with a hammer (PLINK!! reverberating into the girders), and a four-piece chamber orchestra launched into a brittle score that blended Pythagorean harmony with Hubble’s esoteric math. Three dancers, dressed in street clothes in telescope grays and blues, climbed out of the observation well, pushed the railing, were pulled by it, and moonwalked while the telescope began to spin. A wedge of sunlight began to sweep around the space—we were moving, not the sun—and the giant instrument rotated too: slowly, smoothly, on a sealed puddle of mercury. The telescope was dancing.

Dancers in a performance by Scott Benzel.

At KNOWLEDGES, which invited some twenty artists and musicians to stage projects at the observatory, the art-speak commonplaces of reflection, echoing, and lenses had a more technical resonance. Along the path that stretched between the Cosmic Café on one end and the big domes on the other, Alice Könitz installed a handful of obsidian disks which you could use to look directly at the sun—disclaimer: only for a few seconds. Erik Frydenborg adorned the observatory’s visitor center and lecture hall with a pair of spindly statues that resemble the covers of pulp sci-fi books. Inside the theater, beyond exhibits detailing the scopes’ construction and operation, a video by Jeff Cain composited one hundred years of hand-drawn sunspot records at flash-cut speed. It was, in all, difficult to compete with the instruments. On Saturday evening, the theater featured a show of vintage lantern slides selected by Brica Wilcox: The glass positives of galaxies and stars were all right—but the bigger treat were photos in rich grays of the frame of the telescope that made them.

The Hooker was the world’s largest telescope until 1949. The space money followed the cutting edge elsewhere, and now the big historic instruments are basically training pieces, maintained by acolytes. Exhibit: the 150-foot solar telescope (1910). For KNOWLEDGES, Channing Hansen draped the ceiling of the research station with colorful yarn nets based on false color readouts of solar activity. Meanwhile, the station is also a de facto computer museum, stocked with nonfunctioning equipment, including a Raytheon machine from the 1970s boasting big reels of magnetic tape—and now the solar observer Steve Padilla draws sunspots by hand, with a pencil, on sheets of paper.

It gets hot, it gets cold; it’s called weather. There is healthy skepticism, and then there is the pseudo-objective perspective that flat-earths any sense of wonder. Exhibit: sunset through the solar telescope, the pale-yellow circle beamed down onto the paper wavers red on the leading edge, blue-green on the following. A dark speck floats across—an escaped helium balloon—and the hard silhouette of an airplane transits the disk. Soon the ragged ground itself rolls over the image. You can make out single blades of grass. “At sunset, this is the place to be,” said Padilla, and he was right. The sun comes up, the sun goes down.

Alice Konitz obsidian sun-viewing disc.

KNOWLEDGES looked different at night. It turns out that LA’s lid of smog helps dampen light pollution, so that Mount Wilson, despite being an hour outside the city, still gets crisp skies. On the other hand, it was hard to get around the forested paths under blackout conditions. A grove of hammocks arranged by Krysten Cunningham (in a Cygnus-like configuration, I’m told) burst into black light; spotlights blasted Frydenborg’s statues with shadow from below, and the convex mirrors flanking them looked like holes. The Saturday-evening program consisted of very limited concert and viewing sessions in the sixty-inch and one-hundred-inch telescope domes. Sets from White Magic, then Sun Araw, seeped through the smaller dome’s corrugated skin, while folks who hadn’t sprung for tickets lay around on blankets on the pavement outside.

I’d signed on for a show by Ernest Gibson in the larger dome, but due to some technical problems his refraction of tape loops and reverb never really got off the ground, and instead the set was characterized by ear-assaulting spikes in volume. Gibson wailed something into a distorted mic––“We’re going to space tonight, the equipment works a little”––but it didn’t work that much, and after waiting for my chance to glimpse a globular cluster through the Hooker’s storied lens, I slipped back down the stairs and down the mountain. It was close to midnight. Kids zoomed up and down the curves in their high-gravity cars, doing donuts in the turnouts.

Constance Demby at the Space Bass.

There are two main theories of the multiverse. One is that whenever a particle reaches the juncture of two possible positions, a universe splits—and goes on splitting this way a mindboggling number of times. The other is that successful universes explode into being like bubbles rising from a quantum foam. The latter is according to Margaret Wertheim, a science writer with a TED talk to her credit, which means she brings esoteric theories down to earth. (What if art had more such advocates?) Exhibit: her lecture Sunday at Mount Wilson. Medieval and Renaissance artists and city planners had a great time snapping their imaginations to the Euclidian grid, but the problem became how far this rational geometry went. And if the answer is forever, is there room for heaven? Thus, Wertheim pointed out, you have odd formal collisions such as an early sixteenth-century fresco at the Vatican by Raphael, where, in the same image, earth obeys single-point perspective, but heaven above does not. Jesus, God, and angels perch on a strip of cloud cover bowed into the illusion of a celestial dome.

Raphael’s problem was one of art and science. Long before artists got their mitts on Oculus Rift development kits, VR was how art used science to run philosophy experiments. And is it so crazy to hope that art might, once again, be where those big questions aren’t just illustrated but tested? KNOWLEDGES aspired to be such a space. Later Sunday afternoon I ascended the dome with the one-hundred-inch telescope for the final time, for a concert by Constance Demby, the inventor—or at least one of them—of so-called space music. Back against the curvature of the observation platform, in a uniform of blazing cyan and magenta, she bowed and malleted an instrument of her own creation, a fish-bone arrangement of metal rods welded to a thunder sheet called the “space bass.” The long tones sang in the dome and in the gut. A bowed rod will resonate exactly one octave lower than a rod half its length. Music is math. Therefore, math is music.

Travis Diehl