Thursday, November 27, 2008


As we gather for the annual day of thanks, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about some things I'm thankful for. 2008's been a challenging year for all of us, and I've certainly felt a share of the pain. Still, I am grateful to be alive, and healthy, to have a wonderful husband and a loving family, and five adorable cats. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to travel to New Delhi earlier this fall to work with Nature Morte, where I learned an enormous amount about the Delhi art scene and spent some quality time with family and friends. I am thankful that I can continue to work in the field I'm most passionate about despite the economic downturn. But most of all, this year I am thankful for Todd.

As I've posted here before, Todd Blair is a dear friend and former colleague who suffered a traumatic brain injury in September of 2007. His injuries were very serious and his prognosis was at best cautiously optimistic. I am happy to report after seeing Todd today that he is recovering incredibly well, and has come much farther than anyone could have hoped since beginning in-home care early this summer. There is still a long way to go. Still, Todd and his tenacious goddess of a wife, Alex, will make it there, and this makes me believe that we will all get through these trying times in one piece.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, because its spirit is universal. Though it may have been taught to us in school as a dirty trick played by the Pilgrims on the Indians, I prefer to think of it as our least jingoistic, Christerrific national holiday. I look forward to a day of friends and food (after a morning of cooking and cleaning).

One thing I am not thankful for is the horrible news coming from Mumbai today. Even as we count our blessings, we ought as well to take a moment to remember those who are suffering today and every day, to think about how we can help others who have less to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace

This article about the celebrated writer David Foster Wallace, who died tragically this fall at age 46, was published in last month's Rolling Stone. I think it is one of the best pieces I've read about the mind of an artist. In particular, the description of how a highly intelligent and talented person fluctuates between high self-expectation and fear of failure is very accurate. Here are a few of the best quotes, which I think all artists should read because they can probably relate:

"Basically it was the same symptoms all along: this incredible sense of inadequacy, panic. He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you're writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, 'You're not good enough, you're a fraud.'"

"I think one of the true ways I've gotten smarter is that I've realized that there are ways other people are a lot smarter than me. My biggest asset as a writer is that I'm pretty much like everybody else. The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever almost made me die."

"There is, in writing, a certain blend of sincerity and manipulation, of trying always to gauge what the particular effect of something is gonna be [...] It's a very precious asset that really needs to be turned off sometimes. My guess is that writers probably make fun, skilled, satisfactory, and seemingly considerate partners for other people. But that the experience for them is often rather lonely."

This story made me so sad that it's taken me almost two weeks to finish reading it. It is such a tragedy when a person takes his or her own life, even more so when he or she has a great deal to offer the world, and especially when the reason is pharmaceutical as it so often is.

I hope that by reading about what Wallace went through, the rest of us who share a lot of his fears and anxieties about our own art and lives might be spared a little bit of pain. In return, we might push ourselves a little bit harder, like Wallace did, to make something truly original.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lehman Brothers to Auction Art Assets

In a recent conversation with a group of artists, the question came up of what will happen to all the art that bankrupt corporations such as Lehman Brothers and AIG have collected? Would the companies keep it among their last remaining assets, would the government have the sense to take it as collateral on bailout funds, or would it go on the auction block? Today we have an answer.

The Guardian is reporting that Lehman Brothers is planning to sell off about $8 million worth of art, including a lot of modern and contemporary work.

"According to Bloomberg, the Lehman collection has more than 3,500 pieces. The Neuberger Berman collection has another 900 works, including pieces by Marlene Dumas, Andreas Gursky, Takashi Murakami, Neo Rauch and Sam Taylor-Wood."

The story also states that companies that bought up parts of Lehman Brothers, such as Barclays and Bain Capital, will be allowed to keep the artworks located on the premises of Lehman Brothers divisions they now own for a full year. After that time, they will be permitted to cherry-pick which artworks to keep, and the rest will go on auction.

Finally, the Guardian reports that Lehman Brothers is seeking court permission to pay its art storage facilities and art handlers, so that the work these companies have on site can be released for sale. Right now, those warehouses are (wisely) hanging onto the LB assets in their possession in case they don't get paid.

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out, particularly since auction sales this fall have already dropped dramatically. Will Lehman be able to successfully unload the collection? Will a few moneyed people who kept cash under their mattresses be able to buy it up for a song? One thing's clear, which is that the flood of art on the auction market is going to further undercut gallery business. Will it be good for the museums, who often find they can't afford the best examples of work for their collections? We'll have to wait and see.

Monday, November 10, 2008

High Desert Test Sites

I spent the weekend in the Mojave Desert attending High Desert Test Sites. This year's event was co-sponsored by the California Biennial, which I'm hoping to get to later this month.

The experience of walking and driving through the desert landscape was incredible. The weather was marvelously varied, and the clouds and sandy mountains were constantly changing. I felt, much as I did when visiting the Spiral Jetty, that the real artistry was done by nature and the artist's gesture was little more than a marker pointing out a site for engagement. That said, I thought most of the artists could have tried harder to make their markers more meaningful.

Ann Magnuson's "Time Traveling Hooker" installation in room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn was the best of the weekend's installations. It was powerful in that it evoked a real event, the death of musician Gram Parsons, in the place where it happened. Audio, video and installation elements combined to make an abstract historical footnote into something tangible, and charged the space with life and memory.

The Noah Purifoy Foundation was another highlight. Purifoy has created a permanently installed sculpture garden using recycled and waste materials, that has a wonderful junkyard sensibility. The sculptures are largely quasi-architectural environments, built into the landscape in an echo of some of the eroded structures found scattered around the Joshua Tree area. They are naive in a thoughtful way, and succeed as anti-monumentalist art in a way that most of the works in last year's Unmonumental at the New Museum failed to do.

Otherwise, the projects ranged from mildly unsuccessful to nonexistent. Yoshua Okon's "White Russians" gathering at a local home had a strangely unfriendly vibe considering they were handing out drinks in a private household. The locals were welcoming but the Angelenos seemed to have brought their bad attitudes with them. The whole project felt condescending to the rural types who were the hosts, as if we city folk were being invited into their homes to laugh at their unsophistication. The dogs were sweet though.

Marnie Weber and the Spirit Girls' performance was pleasingly odd and theatrical, and the band's musicianship was tight. Weber has an unfortunate voice and limited lyrical skills, but she looks good in costumes. I imagine it was a bit like watching the Velvet Underground perform with Nico.

The installation by Julia Scher, which consisted of a perimeter of signs announcing contamination in the landscape, and the nearby one by Joel Kyack involving an illuminated mineshaft and a bifurcated miner, were entertaining. Projects by Alice Konitz and Thom Merrick were not there when we went to check them out on Sunday. We got to explore some amazing spots while looking for them. In truth, we didn't miss the art much.

Photos from the weekend can be viewed here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

ICA Live and Media Arts Department Cancelled

This news has been going around in media art circles for a few weeks, but enough people have asked about it that it seems worth posting. In October, the director of the ICA in London announced the dismantling of that institution's Live and Media Arts department. It's not so much what Ekow Eshun did as how he said it, essentially disparaging the entire area of artistic output using the medium of interactive technology as sub-par.

From the now-notorious internal memo that's been making the rounds:

"New media based arts practice continues to have its place within the arts sector. However it's my consideration that, in the main, the art form lacks the depth and cultural urgency to justify the ICA's continued and significant investment in a Live & Media Arts department."

Perhaps the ICA's decision could be seen as reflective of a broader shift in focus, from delineated New Media programming toward a new emphasis on integrating intermedia and cinema, that is happening throughout the contemporary art sphere. However, Eshun's confrontational and dismissive language suggests that this decision may have more to do with current art-world fashions than with any real concerns about this medium. Considering that the department's current exhibition features Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, whose contribution to the Mexican Pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale made a huge splash, even this argument is perplexing.

The saddest part of the whole sorry affair is that the ICA has historically been a home for some of the most innovative, least tech-nerdy media art installation projects. The department has consistently challenged assumptions about how an exhibition space might be used. For example, in the current project Dream Director, artist Luke Jerram is inviting the public to spend the night in the gallery, participating in a dream-state feedback loop that allows visitors to experience art in the subconscious. How a project this creative, communal and simply romantic "lacks depth and cultural urgency" completely escapes me.

Having been on the receiving end of curatorial downsizing myself, I regret the short-sightedness of this action and wish outgoing curator Emma Quinn the very best. May this turn out to be a blessing for her as she moves on to some greater challenge and much stronger support for her terrific programs.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's Plan for the Arts

Ok, last political post for a while, I promise. One of the things that's appealed to me throughout Obama's campaign has been his very thoughtful position on the arts. Unlike almost everyone in our federal government, Obama seems to recognize that artists and arts professionals contribute to our society and further our supposed core values of understanding and tolerance.

Aside from the predictable, though admirable, emphasis on arts education for children, Obama's platform recognizes artists as adults and professionals in need of investment. Here are some highlights of Obama's plans to support artists:

"Promote Cultural Diplomacy: American artists, performers and thinkers – representing our values and ideals – can inspire people both at home and all over the world. Through efforts like that of the United States Information Agency, America’s cultural leaders were deployed around the world during the Cold War as artistic ambassadors and helped win the war of ideas by demonstrating to the world the promise of America. Artists can be utilized again to help us win the war of ideas against Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, our resources for cultural diplomacy are at their lowest level in a decade. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will work to reverse this trend and improve and expand public-private partnerships to expand cultural and arts exchanges throughout the world."

Include artists in the "war of ideas" rather than wage a culture war against us? It's so crazy it just might work.

"Ensure Tax Fairness for Artists: Barack Obama supports the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to allow artists to deduct the fair market value of their work, rather than just the costs of the materials, when they make charitable contributions."

The Artist-Museum Partnership Act is long-overdue legislation. If passed, it would bring artists back into the power structure of public collections, which are presently hamstrung by a complicated relationship with private collectors. The situation is complex, but suffice it to say that this law would give museum curators a reason to talk to artists again, and for living artists to play a role in shaping institutions. With a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, it just might happen.

Read the complete position statement here.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Have We Overcome?

This is a day I always hoped would come, but never dared believe in. The euphoria that struck around 5 pm PST, when NPR called Pennsylvania and Ohio for Obama, has begun to fade. I realized when I watched Obama's acceptance speech, and kept looking for the bulletproof glass around him, that I still can't quite accept that he's really going to lead this country.

I agreed with Michelle Obama when she said Obama's candidacy was the first time she'd really felt proud of her country. In my lifetime, I've seen Jimmy Carter fail despite the best of intentions, Ronald Reagan set the clock back to the 1960s, Bush 41 let the oil oligarchs take over our foreign policy, and Bill Clinton let his penis invalidate his entire administration. The damage caused by Bush 43 has been too great even to list. As a liberal, an immigrant, a social progressive and a fiscal conservative, I have seen my candidates try and fail to serve those who need their help the most, while the other side never even tries to conceal their corrupt agenda.

I want to believe that today is different, that in America we can finally put our twisted racial history behind us, that we can stop looking at the world and at people in black and white and start finding nuanced and effective solutions to our problems. I genuinely hope for this to happen. But I keep thinking it's impossible, that something will go wrong--Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton being examples of the best worst case, while JFK, RFK and MLK Jr. exemplify the worst worst case.

But then, this whole campaign has been run on the platform of refusing to let fear run our lives or our country. And so, I am happy, and look forward to a new Camelot in 76 days.


I'm back from India and will have reports in the next few days, but today's post is about something that's actually even more important to me than art--exercising the right to vote.

One of the great virtues of our democracy is that we may choose who we wish to support for higher office. That choice is personal and it's no one's place to tell you how to use it. I would not presume to do so, but I am writing about this today because I know that this may be the most important US election of my lifetime.

Too many consequences of the last 8 years are coming to bear on all of us now, with more fallout yet to come. I firmly believe that the only way to correct our national course is to elect Barack Obama and Joe Biden. They are not perfect candidates, nor perfect people, but they are the best options we have been offered in a long time.

Polls are showing Obama ahead, but polls can lie. The consequences of not electing Obama are too severe for us not to act. The America that John McCain and Sarah Palin want does not include people like me--we of the funny names, immigrant ties and acceptance of non-Christian religions. McCain and Palin don't believe that we are part of America, but Obama and Biden do. They understand that the world is an interconnected place, that the balance of global power is shifting toward the East, and that immigrants make this country great. We, especially we immigrants who have come here and done well for ourselves, should understand in turn that the social safety net also makes this country great (even if it requires paying some taxes). Having recently been in India, where it does not exist, I can see the difference.

If you are a citizen, I am asking you to please exercise your right to vote tomorrow, and help elect Obama and Biden. If you're not, I'm asking you to please make a donation if you can afford it and your residency status permits it, and to talk to your friends and colleagues about these important issues.

Please forward this message to your networks, and especially to people in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Also, please support candidates for other offices who can help bring about the enormous changes we so badly need, like Ashwin Madia in Minnesota, and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.

Finally, if you're in California, please take the time to consider all the (tedious and confusing) propositions on the ballot. If you do nothing else, please vote NO on Proposition 8, and prevent discrimination from being constitutionalized in this state. Marriage is a contract that governs property-sharing and guardianship rights in case of medical emergency, and it is none of the state's business which two people choose to enter into this exclusive agreement. The gender of the two people should be of no concern whatsoever under the law.

I also encourage NO votes on Proposition 4, although I recognize that the issue of parental notification for minors seeking abortions is a more complicated one. Although I understand parents' concerns about the availability of a medical procedure to their minor children without their consent, I also have observed that the teen girls who are most likely to need abortions are the ones who are least able to turn to their parents in times of crisis. The sad fact is that girls who can talk to their parents about serious issues are far less likely to get pregnant in the first place, while the ones who can't are much more likely to do something stupid and potentially dangerous like pursue an illegal abortion.

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this appeal. Here's to waking up on Wednesday in a country that appreciates us.