Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In


Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

April 8, 2009
Hever Castle, Kent, childhood home of Anne Boleyn, later owned by the Astors. With two moats, yet.

Where are the contemporary topiary artists? A medium yet to be explored...

And Nya, again, because I'm smitten.

April 3, 2009
Only in England would anyone think to use Iggy Pop to flog auto insurance. I'm still not sure what the connection is.
November 2, 2008
I arrived home Friday night to a New York that was one giant Halloween party, with exceptionally warm weather that led to a certain sartorial minimalism; I’m guessing there’s not a single pair of fishnet hose left to buy in the city. By contrast Chelsea yesterday was like a ghost town. The galleries were manned by skeleton crews, and I wasn’t surprised when one dealer admitted to me that nothing was selling. In my overfilled inbox, however, was a press release from Sperone Westwater announcing their move in December to a nine-story, 20,000 SF. Norman Foster-designed gallery one block north of the New Museum on the Bowery, so someone’s optimistic.

I’d hoped that my ten days away just before the election would provide some much-needed respite from agonizing over it every single moment, but instead I found the Europeans equally obsessed. To judge by the amount of coverage the election is getting in the British press, you’d think it was a local event. And the international members of Olafur Eliasson’s staff, who I joined for lunch in his Berlin studio, were as up-to-date on Joe the Plumber and the price of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe as anyone. It feels as if the whole world is holding its breath.

There’s even a Web site started by three Icelanders, If the World Could Vote, which (as of this writing) has collected 666,246 symbolic votes from 210 countries: 578,461 (86.8%) for Obama, 87,780 (13.2%) for McCain. I’d feel better if the polls reflected a similar disparity.

Our purpose in going to Olafur’s studio was to shoot footage for a short documentary focusing on his collaboration with mathematician, architect, and all-around visionary Einar Thorsteinn, who previously worked with Buckminster Fuller and Linus Pauling. Olafur and Einar have been working together since they met in Iceland 12 years ago, when Olafur, then 29, was looking for someone to help him build a geodesic dome-type structure, and one project led to another. The two-hour shoot couldn’t have gone better. We had some anxiety when, in the morning, city workers suddenly appeared with deafeningly noisy equipment to spend several hours pounding gravel into the cobblestone courtyard outside, but miraculously they finished just as we were about begin. I barely had to refer to my list of prepared questions; Olafur and Einar addressed each point in order as methodically as if they’d been clued in by a secret spy (I believe in never sharing questions with interviewees in advance, lest I get a canned response).

Despite requests by collectors and institutions to buy individual models and even the whole, Olafur and Einar’s Model Room, much of which was at PS 1 for the MoMA show, has been reinstalled in the conference room of the new studio and spills out into the hallway, where it continues to grow and serve as inspiration for new projects. The attitude toward it is hardly precious—this is a workshop, Einar said—and he told us, while we were filming it, to feel free to move things around as we liked. While Terry and Erica were setting up, I had time to spend with these quirky geometric gems, which led me to think about the relationship between harmony and chaos and how, to be fully engaging, an artwork requires certain degrees of each. It was also energizing to be around the 30 or 40 members of Olafur’s busy team, who he sees as working with rather than for him, acknowledged co-creators, an attitude which results in a palpable enthusiasm all around. He also feeds them well. Every day the cook (working in the studio kitchen, which is not walled off, so that she’s part of the creative bustle around her) prepares a simple, healthy lunch—the day I was there it was pumpkin risotto with a green salad and great bread. The food is is laid out buffet style and eaten on long trestle tables in the cavernous dining area, which has walls and high ceilings faced with the remnants of beautiful old tiles and tall, arched windows. As well as making sure everyone gets proper nutrition, the communal meal has its practical reasons for being—no one wastes time going out for food, and it provides a daily opportunity for cross-communication that would be unlikely otherwise.

The 30,000 SF building, which the studio only recently moved in to, is a red brick fortress-like former brewery, and when Einar told me about it last year, referring to it as Olafur’s “castle in the center of Berlin,” I didn’t know that he was being so literal. The first floor is the kitchen, workshop and showroom (in the old studio, one worker told me, there was no room even to set things up and see how they looked), the second is the conference room and studio, and the top floor will house a school for 15-20 students (best described in this That experience, coupled with a visit to Einar and Manuela’s home in the Berlin outskirts, a house which nearly bursts with the results of their combined creativity (the subject of the next Art Vent House Report), made me want to just come home and work. The best possible outcome.

I didn’t see much to mention in London, other than Frank Gehry’s pavilion at the Serpentine, which looked as if he’d handed the project over to an intern. Or perhaps it would have been better if he had. Terry deemed it “over-built and under-designed.” While the press release described it as “seemingly random,” I—a Gehry fan in general—couldn’t discern any over-arching concept, but saw it as an example of chaos that could have benefited from a little mediating harmony. I think we’ve had enough random for one century, thank you. While we were there an English girl and her Indian boy friend—art students, no doubt—were in the middle of an argument about their relationship when the guy became distracted and, looking over at the pavilion, muttered, “That thing is a pile of shit.”

I did, however, get to spend quality time with the Upholstery Eater and am pleased to report that she’s thriving despite (or maybe because of) her inherited proclivity.

October 23, 2008

Erica, who has come with me on this trip to England, is of the opinion that Art Vent should be about art and not silly penis jokes. But I couldn't resist posting this photo from my walk today.
March 5, 2008

“Punk is not dead” scratched into stainless steel (in the ladies’ room at the Tate Modern) seems the perfect image for 2008 in England, where punk was born and has achieved an everlasting adolescence. However in this latest manifestation punk has gone mainstream—-not in London as much as the outlying cities such as Canterbury, where you’ll see flocks of 10-year-old girls on the High Street sporting cellophaned hair, skinny black jeans and studded belts. It could be the healthiest of trends in that it doesn’t require a Hollywood-ready face or shape, is hardly about labels or the consumption of designer items—just the opposite—and allows for a wide range of DIY self-expression. Plus, given the emphasis on recycled clothing, it can even be considered green. The students at the University College for the Creative Arts in Rochester have taken it up in a big way:

However the beauteous Abbie, a photography student, has gone even more retro—at least on the days I saw her—the question “what’s Abbie wearing today?” being one of general interest in an art college where students and teachers of fashion, architecture, and visual art share (in my mind, to creative advantage) the same physical workspace.

But as with the hip hop kids with their droopy, oversize pants (a style I wouldn’t miss if it disappeared forever) I think it’s fascinating that kids are wearing the clothes their parents might have worn and playing the music their parents might have listened to. Aretha-meets-Britney incarnation Amy Winehouse, whose music is everywhere and her misadventures in every tabloid, appeals to both generations, thereby completing the circle.
March 2, 2008

The most important thing to know about England, bar none, is that while you can fly into the country with two carry-on items, you can leave with only one. A fact Continental did not tell me when I checked in for my return flight, which I only learned at the security gate. Unfortunately I had my computer with me, in a carry-on size suitcase, as well as a backpack containing my wallet, passport, lunch, iPod and other essentials. They said I could check my backpack and suitcase and just carry my computer on—-but that would mean I’d be checking my wallet, passport, etc. and also carrying my laptop on case-less, naked, which was clearly not a good idea. And put my good m0851 backpack through as luggage? No way! Fortunately downstairs there was a friendly kiosk willing to sell me a brand-new computer case I didn’t need for the equivalent of $70, into which I could cram my laptop and a few other items, and still have time to check my other stuff through.

The other thing to know is that to turn on any household appliance in England takes two separate actions. When I got up that first morning, in a house I’d never stayed in (one that my friends had just moved into, things still in boxes), in a neighborhood I didn’t know, Terry was already gone, having arisen early to go again to Heathrow (two hours drive) to retrieve his parents, who were arriving back after two months in South Africa. I had prepared for this eventuality by bringing food and tea, and patting myself on the back for such admirable forethought, looked forward to a shower and breakfast. It was not to happen. First of all, when I turned the knob on the stove, there was gas but no ignition. And no matches. And I couldn’t get the electric teakettle to work. And when I turned the shower thing on (I’m familiar with those little plastic boxes that provide infinite hot water on demand—-why don’t we have them?) no water came out.

Only after Terry returned many hours later, were these puzzles solved. To ignite the stove, he showed me, you have to turn on the burner, then push this teeny button way over on the left to ignite it. As for the teakettle, the problem was coordinating the off/on switch on the kettle (not clear) with the off/on switch on the outlet in the wall. That switch had two settings, one that you could push to reveal little letters that said “on” and one that made a red bar appear. To an American, or at least this one, “on” means, “hello, it’s on!” while red means it’s off. But noooo, “on” means “push here for on” and red means “it’s on.” Okay, then the shower. This one had even Terry, who had only taken baths in the house up to this point, stymied. In fact he’d been wondering what that pull string was for, hanging from the ceiling on the other side of the bathroom…
March 1, 2008

I have to admit I’ve always loved artful graffiti. It proves to me that the human desire to make art is innate, a force of nature like the weeds that spring up even in the cracked walls and sidewalks of the inner city. This desolate concrete area under the Hayward Gallery in London, facing the Thames, has become the province of skateboarders (the day I was there even little guys, under the age of ten, with their mums) and is an example of graffiti in the right place at the right time. It makes me think that town planners, instead of trying to shoo away a phenomenon that’s more persistent than they are, could embrace it and end up with something quite beautiful.