Monthly Archives: March 2015

James Benning

This review of James Benning: Decoding Fear at Kunstverein Hamburg appeared on

View of “James Benning: Decoding Fear,” 2015.

With its white walls, this latest installation of “Decoding Fear” seems the negative image of the show’s first iteration at Kunsthaus Graz, where sundry objects, texts, and projections were displayed in a dark space. In either iteration, the gallery spaces have felt as sepulchral as the immaculately white, minimally furnished twin cabins at the heart of the show. These simplified, abstract reproductions of the hermitical dwellings that Henry David Thoreau and the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski constructed at Walden Pond and Stemple Pass, Montana, respectively, are an essay in contrasts, for all their outward similarities.

The inspired, provocative pairing of these two reclusive figures, who both embody attempts at self-sufficient living, plays throughout. Practically every item on display is confronted with its double, starting with a handwritten page copied from Thoreau’s 1854 Walden and one from Kaczynski’s journals, placed at the exhibition’s entrance. In the video Stemple Pass, 2012, four static, half-hour shots of a lush mountain valley in the Sierra Nevada across the seasons, with a replica of Kaczynski’s log cabin built by Benning in the foreground, have their exact counterparts—right down to the videos’ duration—in the lingering shots of a faithful copy of Thoreau’s cabin, in Benning’s first showing of Concord Woods, 2014.

Are Kaczynski’s antitechnological writings, by turns lucid and chilling, the flip side of Thoreau’s dream of self-reliance? By emphasizing the similarities between these two figures—one worshipped, one reviled—Benning appears to suggest that their games of survival stem from the same anarchic and very American impulse.


Private Eyes

This report from the 4th artgeneve appeared on

Left: Dealer Massimo Minini and Andrea Bellini, director of the Centre d’Art Contemporain Geneve. Right: One of the spinners in Ahmet Ogut’s Fair Wage. (All photos: Agnieszka Gratza)

CONVENIENTLY LOCATED FOR THE CITY AIRPORT, if not much else, artgenève is a ten-minute walk from the arrival gate. Though styled as a salon d’art, there is nothing salon-like about the vast complex known as Palexpo—short for Palais des Expositions et des Congrès—that has housed the fair since its inception.

Now in its fourth edition, artgenève prides itself on being more intimate and “human-scale” than most fairs. For one thing, the number of exhibiting galleries is capped at seventy. These share the floor with private groups like The Syz Collection, local institutions, and nonprofit spaces, whose aim it is to show work rather than sell it. According to artgenève director Thomas Hug, this mix of commercial and noncommercial spaces has been there right from the start. “There are more things around which are not for sale this year,” one of the performers in Ahmet Ögüt’s Fair Wage for a Made Up Job told me. She and three other performers worked in shifts to spin portable monitors showing Ögüt’s film Sign Spinners for an hourly wage of fifty Swiss francs, exactly what the director of the fair is paid, not counting expenses and various other perks.

There was also an ambitious but underattended public program curated by Joanna Warsza and produced by the artist duo Lou Cantor. Kolja Gläser, one half of Lou Cantor, used to run a gallery in Berlin with Hug called COMA (Center for Opinions in Music and Art). A pianist by training, Hug is passionate about music and “artgenève-musique”—framed as a conversation between art and music—is his pet project. As the second day of curated talks was winding down, a group of us headed to the nearby Villa Sarasin in time for some bubbly served in the Villa’s lobby, speeches, and performances by Anri Sala as well as the Swiss M/2 collective that could be heard from behind walls and closed doors.

Left: Artist Raphael Hefti. Right: Artist Ernie Gehr.

By then it was high time to head to the opening for Raphael Hefti, veteran filmmaker Ernie Gehr, and artist-in-residence Alfredo Aceto at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, a train ride away from the Geneva airport which I’d barely left. There in the dark, curtained space where Gehr’s mirrored images of misty rivers and strolling shadows were being projected on multiple screens in a retrospective of the artist’s digital works, I stumbled upon Bruce Haines, director of London gallery Ancient & Modern, who introduced me to Hefti.

The last time I visited the Centre, John Armleder gave me a circumstantial account of his brief sojourn in prison as a conscientious objector. Now it was Hefti’s turn to relate how pressing the wrong button on a radar-controlled device landed him with a five-year criminal record. The accident, which caused his car to blow up with all his equipment in it, would have been bad enough in and of itself. But it happened to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos and the firemen felt obliged to call in the terror unit. A long story to explain why the artist, who is about to begin a residency in Soho, has not been allowed to travel to the States these past few years.

Snapshots of NYC’s busy squares and streets, in a complex interplay of digital images, one lodged inside another, were displayed all around the space as if to taunt us. These works demand and reward sustained viewing, but it was getting late and dinner at the Cercle des Bains beckoned. Luckily, I was sat next to Gehr. Over wine—selected for us by “Président” Pierre Keller who presides over the Office des Vins Vaudois as well as the Fondation du Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève—we talked about New York, the city where Gehr has lived since 1965, and Harry Houdini, whose feats he strives to emulate with his own insubstantial acts of magic. “I don’t make things that are commodities,” he confided.

Left: Kolja Gläser of Lou Cantor and composer/conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers. Right: Curator Joanna Warsza, artist Alexandra Pirici, and Jozefina Chetko.

Commodities and valuables, things one can put a price tag on, were the order of the following day. The afternoon kicked off with a visit to Pictet & Cie, one of the oldest Swiss private banks, which houses a fine, if necessarily subdued, collection of modern and contemporary art firmly focused on Swiss artists. More daring stuff by the likes of Pipilotti Rist was to be seen, hung salon-style on every available wall surface, in the home of the mother and son collectors Jocelyne and Fabrice Petignat.

A brisk tour of The Neon Parallax project (drifting snow is hardly an ideal condition for viewing neon signs placed on top of buildings) and several visits to anonymous contemporary art/design collections later, dealer Jose Castafial told me, over a martini, that the fair’s branding itself as a salon fits in perfectly with Geneva’s image as a “private city.” It’s the city of private banks, private dealers, private collectors. “People like to keep things secret,” he said. “Look at the VIP program. They give you an address but never the collector’s name.”

We were at Le Verre à Monique—a self-styled saloon serving cocktails in teapots and cups—where Esther Schipper (whose spare booth won my vote for the best gallery presentation at the fair) hosted its party that evening. Schipper herself was not in Geneva. Armleder, that Genevan institution, may not have been physically present either but he was with us in spirit, via limited-edition watches gracing the wrists of collectors like Manuel Emch and certainly at the Temple de la Fusterie, where everyone headed after for the artgenève bash. His son, Stephan Armleder (aka the Genevan Heathen) of Villa Magica Records, was DJing that night.

Left: Dealers Julia Dziumla and Bruce Haines of Ancient & Modern, London. Right: Watchmaker Manuel Emch and curator Nicolas Trembley.

An eagerly anticipated excursion to CERN the next morning, organized as part of Warsza’s program, turned out to be something of a letdown. After sitting through a particle-physics-for-dummies lecture delivered in scientific English, the artgenève group was whisked off to the Atlas Experiment site only to be told that we would not be able to access the tunnel, which was about to be closed off to the public as scientists gear up for the second three-year run of the Large Hadron Collider. We had to content ourselves with a virtual 3D tour and yet more lecturing.

By the time we left, my head was abuzz with talk of protons, neutrons, electrons, and quarks. Back at Palexpo, the founder of arts@CERN, Ariane Koek, talked to us about artists, filmmakers, choreographers, and fashion designers moved by particle theory, who got to hang out at CERN with no expectations thanks to her residencies program. The end results, which ranged from kidnapping scientists to creating a fashion collection inspired by magnetic fields to turning the Collider into a musical instrument, struck me as lacking the simplicity of artist Gianni Motti’s own gambit.

In 2005, long before arts@CERN was set up, Motti walked the length of the seventeen-mile LHC tunnel where protons are accelerated. Documented on film in a single tracking shot, the five-and-a-half-hour long action was continually projected on four monitors dotted round the artgenève salon. The artist’s quest to transform himself into a particle continues with the planned sequel to Higgs: In Search of the Anti-Motti, something only Motti could dream up. But in this matter I have been sworn to secrecy.

Left: Artist Gianni Motti. Right: Inside the Atlas Experiment at CERN.

Richard Tuttle

This review of Richard Tuttle’s retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery and at Tate Modern appeared in Dutch translation in Metropolis M (Feb-March issue):

This autumn, two of London’s most illustrious public modern art galleries have joined forces to stage a survey of American artist Richard Tuttle’s textile-based works – with somewhat mixed results. This joint venture consists of a retrospective spanning five decades of Tuttle’s work with fabric at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and of a large-scale sculptural installation made to measure for Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall, accompanied by a single lavishly illustrated publication. The latter reveals Tuttle’s wider interest in and connoisseurship of textiles from different periods and cultures, which he has been avidly collecting over the years.

The chosen title for all three elements, I Don’t Know. The Weave of Textile Language, takes the form of a characteristically tentative answer to an implied question: ‘What is it about?’ As Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery, suggests under the heading ‘Neither’ of her contribution to the exhibition catalogue (‘Richard Tuttle: A Glossary’), the artist’s work is neither painting nor sculpture, though it partakes of both. Placed at the outset of a retrospective that eschews a chronological presentation in favour of a more intuitive arrangement, which seeks out affinities between works that often come in series, the exquisite Wire Pieces (1971-74) are drawings in space. A graphite line drawn directly onto the wall is multiplied and complicated by a stray, unruly wire, pinned to the wall above it, and its shadow.

Though one might query the inclusion of these works given the show’s stated focus, the wire is related to the thread, the rope and the string deployed throughout Tuttle’s more obviously textile-based works, protruding from the canvas in the nine-part 1991 Perceived Obstacle series; laid out on the floor in Ten Kinds of Memory and Memory Itself (1973); tightly wound around a painted paper ball in The Present (2004); or nailed to the wall, way below eye-level, in the case of the easily-overlooked 7 cm-long 3rd Rope Piece (1974) – ‘Not a thread too short to be a line’, according to one of twenty-odd poetic texts written by the artist to accompany the artworks. Textile and text come from the Latin texere (‘to weave’), and the exhibition skillfully weaves the two together. But Tuttle’s refined artworks, which demand to be examined up-close (even if it requires bending over or prostrating oneself in front of them), are as much to do with texture.

Timed to coincide with the start of Frieze Week, the unveiling of the monumental Turbine Hall installation was designed to make ‘a bigger splash’. Above all a splash of colour since – in contrast to the subtle, muted hues of the 1967 Cloth Pieces and most of the works on view at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition – Tuttle’s largest sculptural piece to date is swathed in vibrant saffron and vermillion fabric custom-made in Gujarat’s city of Surat. The pairing of orange and red is a striking, if not exactly harmonious, combination. A third midnight-blue material can be seen in places beneath the red cloth, which generously covers the central vertical structure with protruding disks bulging from its sides like platters, one of which is heaped up with mounds of fabric.

Almond-shaped wedges placed at each end and inserted at regular intervals into two horizontal wooden platforms suspended from the ceiling form wings of sort, framing the central vertical element. These are draped over, here and there, with saffron cloth, stretched out or loosely folded over the edges of plywood, seemingly at random. The overall effect is messy. Reflected in the glass panes lining one side of the converted power station, the horizontal installation looms large over the bridge that cuts the Turbine Hall into roughly two halves, one of which is occupied by Tuttle’s work. Though the artist is at pains to stress that the piece has to do with scale rather than size, his bulky sculpture lacks the grace of the delicate, flimsy offerings displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery. Less is definitely more where Tuttle is concerned.