Vanity Fair So I've just managed to traipse through several rooms of the Reina Sofia museum with a cocktail in my hand. Instead of a reprimand, servers in white monkey suits offer up flutes of bubbly, paper-thin slices of jabugo ham, puff pastries with caviar crowns?food and drink every bit as dressed up and unsatisfying as ARCO 2000, the 19th version of the famous Madrid art fair, is to the deep-seated hankering for new, mind-firing art.
The heart and soul of ARCO, one sees them clambering down the Gran Via or Paseo del Prado in luxury buses bearing trunk-sized capital-letter signs in imperial English: MAJOR COLLECTORS. The one looking at me now blubbers in thick Italian-accented English: "After Louise, what the young people they do?" Shaking his head in amazement, he ambles off to find his own answer. Myself?in the company of a savvier collector companion?I head directly across the square from the museum to the packed Galería Salvador Díaz.
What they do, these brilliant youth, is snack on the burnt eggplant and rubbery beef satay doled out by international line-cook Rirkrit Tiravanija. Tiravanija, who builds trademark houses out of plywood to grill and party in, is an emblematic artist for today's deracinated and dishwater-dull art world. First, he's everywhere you don't want him to be, like lice or the IRS. Second, after promising the exoticism of Third World cuisine and the tony flash of rock 'n' roll, he consistently delivers curry spiced like lager lout vindaloo and one-note "process art." Way beyond repetitive, Tiravanija's work is as complex and preprogrammed as an analog alarm clock. His new silkscreen-on-aluminum works sell for $10,000, though, at Salvador Díaz's fairground stand. He'll likely sell more than a few.
Leaving the warm beer and shitty food to the indiscriminate swarm of fine young cannibals, my friend and I move to toast Tiravanija's predictable success elsewhere. Atop the Major Collector Bus Line, we head for yet another party, this one thrown by Javier Lopez, one of Spain's big-money dealers, for American Neo-Geo guy and Index magazine publisher Peter Halley.
Riffing on Barnett Newman's legendary put-down of sculpture, a boozy English wag once delivered a line to peg art inaugurations everywhere: "Art is often something you back into when trying to get another drink." Things are often this head-spinning way at ARCO, a fair more infamous for its literal dusk-to-dawn partying than it is famous for exhibiting groundbreaking art. After a mere 24 hours in Madrid, ARCO can feel like one dizzying art party after another.
Representing some 258 galleries from 29 countries, ARCO 2000 has expanded its size, the number of its participants and putatively its commitment to new art by including a "Cutting Edge" section (more than 40 international galleries) plus "Project Rooms" housing some 30 installations. Large as a football stadium and unwieldy as a jackhammer, ARCO 2000 includes conferences with big artworld honchos like international supercurator Achille Bonito Oliva and the New Museum's Dan Cameron. "Mutations of the Exhibition Model" was the title of one such conference; "Artists as Generators of Change in Curatorial Practice," another. Aside from the inaugural address delivered by Oliva in untranslated Italian, I don't know a single soul who was in attendance. Problem number two: Most of the work at ARCO 2000, regardless of its far-flung provenance, incredibly, looks all very much the same.
"Nothing New in the Land of the New" read one prickly newspaper headline in the Spanish press. Arguably the third most important commercial art fair in the world after Basel and Chicago, ARCO is to Spain what the Venice Biennale is to Italy or the Documenta in Kassel is to Germany: the largest and most important art-related event in the country. I was surprised to see entire middle-class families at ARCO on the weekend; hordes of bongo-playing art students vegged out en plein air just beyond the pavilion doors, smoking hash cigarettes to their little hearts' content. But all the optimism, booze, drugs and quick money?and of all these this year there was plenty?could not have made ARCO 2000 less of an artistic fiasco.
Colorful large-scale painting and photography, little of it memorable, was the mainstay of ARCO 2000. Everywhere one looked, whether in Italian, Brazilian or Icelandic booths, painted acrylic figures and digital photographic prints predictably appeared. To known, overexposed quantities like Andres Serrano, Spencer Tunick and Vanessa Beecroft were added the names of lesser-known, equally facile artists like the Cuban-American Ernesto Pujol (who photographed himself crossdressed as a nun) and Dutchman Erwin Olaf (c-prints of old women posing as today's supermodels). In painting, the familiar names reeled on and on: Enzo Cucchi, Antonio Saura, Donald Baechler, Antoni Tapies, Richard Artschwager, Georg Baselitz. Julian Schnabel priced to sell one of his atrocious spermy blob paintings for $170,000. At odds with intellectual reflection of all sorts, the curatorial and gallery selections at ARCO were hell-bent on recreating the exact art fair equivalent of Chelsea. A blown-up version of the 529 building on W. 20th St., balmy ARCO offered up very much the expected, safe and boring fare. Except for the partying, that is.
Art is often something you back into when trying to get another drink, I remember to think as I nearly stumble into a huge, superexpensive Alex Katz portrait. Unnoticed by my fabulous hosts, I take a seat next to a young painter, Marina Kappos, a fashioner of works not unlike the one I've nearly shouldered off the wall. Updated by elegant relief and a younger sensibility, Kappos' work is on view at ARCO at the booth of the Chelsea gallery I-20. Closer to the bar, I spy Pedro, a Philippine artist desperately in search of cocaine, buttonholing the sober and intensely in-control guest of honor.
Lolling nearby are rail-thin folks in Massimo Dutti suits and Prada dresses, vamping in front of Ed Ruscha photographs and a Jeff Wall light box. Like the Vanity Fair in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, this gathering, like most ARCO gatherings in Madrid, deliberately smacks of a "place of empty, idle amusement and frivolity." Known and unknown faces drink, get up, chatter, then sit down and drink some more. Five in the a.m. will see most of these people at the unofficial ARCO cantina, fittingly called the Cock Bar, after its overpriced drinks and surly gay waiters, one presumes. But not before Peter Halley snaps a picture of a mugging Pedro and his friend with Pedro's vintage instamatic. Pedro's eyes are at half-mast and he is smiling and overjoyed; a sour, how-did-I-get-into-this look crosses Halley's iron, bespectacled face. Cheers, Peter, I think. I bet you wish this was a simulacrum now, you old Baudrillardian fake. I know, all boozing aside, I did.