Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#DayDetroit: Thoughts on the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

A Day for Detroit is a nationwide call to consider the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts in response to the threat of sale of said collection to settle debts owed by the bankrupt city administration. In solidarity, here are some thoughts prompted by Sandro Botticelli's The Resurrected Christ (c. 1480).

In 1480, Sandro Botticelli was at the peak of his fame and creative powers as a painter. A favorite of the powerful Medici family, Botticelli produced sensuous works that celebrated beauty, nature, and eroticism as appealed to his patrons. The Medici were thriving both as bankers and as political figures, dominating the Florentine electorate and the Vatican alike. A parallel can be made with our own time, in which the agents of capital control our democratic institutions and our public spaces of learning, faith, and transcendence, whether religious or secular.

The DIA’s painting The Resurrected Christ is unusual for its moment in that its somber palette and severe, tragic imagery contrasts with the pleasure and ease of Botticelli’s more famous Birth of Venus (c. 1482) and Primavera (c. 1478), completed around the same time for private patrons in the Medici family. Still, this work prefigures what would be the great tragedy of the artist’s life, as the rise of the fire-and-brimstone preacher Girolamo Savonarola would transform Botticelli’s consciousness and his circumstances. Savonarola rose to prominence as an itinerant preacher who challenged the Church’s complicity with acquisitive capitalistic values. His challenge to power was ultimately snuffed, but not before his call to repent was deeply internalized by Botticelli. Tormented by fears of divine retribution for his own cooperation with the Medici, Botticelli ceased to paint non-Christian subjects and found his wellspring of commissions soon run dry. He died in poverty and relative obscurity some 30 years after the DIA’s work was completed.

Today, many who turn away from religion find a different spiritual fulfillment in the contemplation of art. As Savonarola preached that Catholicism would be undone by its marriage to capitalism, many believe today that the undoing of art’s social value is its close relationship to a market based in speculation and asset-hoarding. Bound as we are to the religion of profit, the possibility that the DIA would liquidate its collection to please creditors appears as another kind of repentance, in which a city unable or unwilling to please the gods of capital behaves as though its citizens have waived their right to the spiritual nourishment that art provides. Perhaps it is time to bring back the itinerant preacher who travels the countryside speaking truth to power. Just be warned, it could all end in an auto-da-fé.

Monday, April 08, 2013

#Curating Activism: An Interview with Julio César Morales on Daily Serving

My first-ever piece for Daily Serving just posted, it's an interview with ASU Museums curator Julio César Morales.  We discussed art, activism, and institutional politics, with a flambé on the side.

#Curating Activism: An Interview with Julio César Morales

Monday, March 04, 2013

Thoughts on International Art English and the 2013 CAA Conference

I have been thinking a lot about last month’s College Art Association conference, where I attended a panel on the future of art magazines in which the concept of International Art English came up for debate. The Triple Canopy essay that coined the term, published last July, has been discussed in detail elsewhere, but after reading this recap of the CAA panel moderated by Art in America editor Lindsay Pollock, I have been thinking about the argument Triple Canopy editor Peter Russo and e-flux co-founder Anton Vidokle got into about the fairness of the article’s reliance on e-flux announcements as source material. Vidokle claimed that the study emphasized a community of non-native English speakers as indicative of a certain superficial approach to art language, and whether in turn that emphasis was misplaced and thereby, as he put it, a “typical colonial argument.” His domineering manner aside (he interrupted Russo and TC editor Alexander Provan repeatedly when they disagreed with him), something left me uneasy with respect to Vidokle’s statement. 

While he seemed to claim that Triple Canopy’s article unfairly attacked e-flux, I see the essay less as an attack and more as a quantification of a heretofore invisible system of insider communication. The international art community whose publications e-flux circulates may be, as Vidokle suggested, largely English learners who rely on jargon to communicate in a language they have not mastered. There are certainly colonial structures at play here, determining who creates this language as well as who consumes it. But an article like this one that studies such systems is not the problem here. Rather, it indicates that within a certain size of museum anywhere in the world -- that which has the budget to afford the (not insignificant) cost of e-flux’s service -- employees are under pressure to speak to an international art audience to the exclusion of people in their own communities. 

This represents a colonial system at work in the arts, not because communication is ostensibly in English, but because the institutions that have the financial means to present international art and support ambitious projects are disinvested in their own communities as both audiences and creative artists, and seem to be speaking above the public to a small community of insiders.  As such, the predominance of International Art English in e-flux announcements is of greater concern than its appearance in Artforum or another publication where participation is not tied to both a set fee and non-profit status. If private collectors, artists, and other insiders want to speak their own language, so be it. When non-profit institutions in the public trust have ceased to communicate in language that their public constituencies can understand or access, that is cause for alarm.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Take action: tell the Smithsonian that censorship offends you!

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough's willingness to cave in to right-wing extremists and censor the work of David Wojnarowicz should not go unpunished. Email Clough and NPG director Sullivan to let them know that the majority can be just as vocal as the minority! Send your message to and

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to express my grave concern at your recent decision to remove David Wojnarowicz's important work, "A Fire in My Belly" from the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibition.

As an arts educator, I am both disturbed and offended by the Smithsonian's haste to acquiesce to the bigoted wishes of a small but vocal group of extremists seeking to once again silence those who would speak out against the Catholic church's ongoing characterization of basic AIDS prevention as sinful. I am even more distressed that this censorship appears to be motivated either by a gross misreading of Wojnarowicz's artistic intent, or the more craven possibility that this move is prompted entirely by budgetary self-preservation. It is widely known that this exhibition was largely funded by private donors; moreover, as a taxpayer, I am less inclined to support government investment in the Smithsonian as a result of your evident willingness to abandon your scholarly responsibilities at the first sign of political fallout. I fear this action sets a precedent that will lead to censorship of other scholarly research at the Smithsonian that runs counter to conservative political interests, such as evolutionary science.

The National Portrait Gallery has in recent years developed a well-deserved reputation for excellence and progressive institutional programming - one which you have compromised in an instant with this regrettable decision. I stand in solidarity with the curators of "Hide/Seek", the formidable scholars of the Portrait Gallery's curatorial staff, the Wojnarowicz estate and the whole of the international contemporary art community in condemning your decision to censor "A Fire in My Belly".

Lastly, I regret that when I visit my family in DC this holiday season, I will be unable to share with them this important work of art. For many Americans, this time of year is about opening our own minds and hearts, and those of the people we love, to have compassion for those who suffer while we celebrate.

I will be showing "A Fire in My Belly" to my students for years to come, and hope that your shameful censorship will likewise prompt my colleagues to reconsider and represent this work.

Yours truly,
Anuradha Vikram
UC Berkeley Department of Art Practice

More info about this controversy can be found at the website of Wojnarowicz's gallery, PPOW.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Add Art Exhibition Feb 12-26

Merchandise (You Are Not What You Own)

An Online Exhibition Presented by Add Art

February 12-26, 2010 in your Firefox browser

The everyday onslaught of advertising images in our media-saturated world serves one purpose – that is, to destabilize our sense of self just enough that we become convinced that the thing being advertised is just what is needed to restore order. From every angle, our popular culture sells us fairy tales of who we are and who we are supposed to be. These are ideals which few can ever attain without a rare combination of genes, wealth and luck. The market gambles with our personalities, creating a bubble of trendiness and glamour, while the long-term value of identity and memory is compromised.

The artists in this show appropriate and subvert the language of marketing, using its tools of photography, costuming and set dressing, digital manipulation, and data tagging. By copying these strategies, they create transparency where obfuscation is usually found. By bringing the sublimated messages of consumer culture into question, these artists offer the possibility of a more critical engagement with the image. The gap between the self and others’ perception is made clearer by their redirections.

Curator: Anuradha Vikram ( is a curator, critic and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is Curator at the Worth Ryder Gallery, University of California, Berkeley, Lecturer at College of Marin, Kentfield, and Curator-at-Large at Swarm Gallery, Oakland, CA.

Bayeté Ross-Smith ( is an artist, photographer and arts educator. Included in this exhibition are selections from three series: Our Kind Of People examines how clothing, ethnicity and gender affect our ideas about identity, personality and character. The subjects in this work are dressed in clothing from their own wardrobes. The outfits are worn in a style and fashion similar to how that person would wear them in daily life. Devoid of any context for assessing the personality of the individual in the photograph, the viewer projects her or his own preconceived notions on each photograph. Passing examines how nationality affects the perception of identity. It also examines the power of identity documents and the role they play in giving people access to the various resources of our global society. Taking AIM explores that fine line that exists between acceptable, condoned and recreational violence, and deplorable criminalized violence.

Bayeté Ross-Smith’s work has been exhibited in galleries, museums and in public, both nationally and internationally, including the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the Goethe Institute in Accra, Ghana, the Zacheta National Gallery of Art, in Warsaw, Poland, the Leica Gallery and Rush Arts Gallery in New York City, as well as the San Francisco Arts Commission’s “ Art at City Hall” program, SF, CA and the Oakland Museum of California. He is represented by Patricia Sweetow Gallery, San Francisco, CA.

Michele Pred ( creates interventions in real and virtual public space. Barcodes are now embedded into many aspects of our lives. They code and track objects in our life from basic needs like food and clothing, to transportation and travel. They even code and track us. We have become products. To Pred, barcodes epitomize our consumer culture. Consumerism implicitly defines our modes of communication and interaction. It has the ability to engender collective stupor; the daily repetition of images, phrases, and messages lull us into unconscious interaction or dialogue. We have constructed our lives around products and codes without thought. The project is meant to invite a new consciousness and awareness to the encoding of our lives.

To scan and read this piece with your mobile phone you will need to download the software into your phone. You can access the decoding program by going to in your handsets web browser and following the directions, or by downloading the UpCode App in your iPhone.

Michele Pred is a conceptual artist who works with found/confiscated objects and technology imbued with cultural and political meaning. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries, art fairs and museums in London, Stockholm, New York, Bologna, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Her work is part of the permanent collection at the 21st Century Museum, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Di Rosa Preserve in Napa, CA and is held in numerous corporate and private collections. Michele is the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area based art collective Quorum. She is represented by the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York and the Robert Berman Gallery in Los Angeles.

Robin Lasser ( & Adrienne Pao ( have collaborated on their ongoing Dress Tents project since 2004. Dress Tents investigate notions of tourism in real and simulated fantasy landscapes, and involve a combination of performative and staged scenarios. Internationally, an exhibition of the Dress Tents has been touring South America beginning with a solo exhibition at the Recoleta Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2006 and traveling through Patagonia and São Paulo, Brazil in 2007. The Dress Tents were featured in the 2007 International Photography Festival in Pingyao, China.

Robin Lasser is a Professor of Art at San Jose State University, and has exhibited nationally and internationally at museums such as: Municipal Museum of Neuquen, Argentina; Recoleta Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Caixa Cultural Center in Rio De Janeiro; Aronson Galleries – Parsons School of Design in New York City; Wave Hill Glyndor Gallery in the Bronx, New York City; L.A. County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California; Osaka World Trade Center Museum in Osaka, Japan; and Academy of Film in Prague, Czech Republic. She also participates in International Biennials such as ZERO1: Global Art on the Edge, San Jose, California and Nuit Blanche, Toronto, Canada.

Adrienne Pao is Visiting Faculty in the Photography Department at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Academy of Art in San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured in the Portfolio issue 77 of Shots (2004), Exposure (2006), Flaunt (2006), Top (Brazil, 2006), Playboy (South America, 2006), Marie Claire (Italy, Greece 2007). It is also featured in writer and art critic Rebecca Solnit’s book Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (2007). She has shown her work nationally at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California and also at Wave Hill Glyndor gallery in the Bronx, New York.

Stephan Vladimir Bugaj ( uses found photography from the mid-20th century as the basis for exploring the construction of identity. Images from the “Good War” (World War II), a conflict that sent the artist’s family into permanent exile, are manipulated to emphasize the deterioration of cultural memory in an age of superficial access to information. The more data we have, the less we know or remember. Reduced to symbols, the people in these images have lost their voice to the forward march of history.

Stephan Vladimir Bugaj is a writer, filmmaker, feature animation technical director, artificial intelligence researcher, visual artist, noiseician, philosopher, futurist, Web pioneer, and all around curmudgeonly polymath. By day, he is a Technical Director at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, CA. As a screenwriter, he has been a Finalist at the Austin Film Festival, a Quarterfinalist for the Nicholl Fellowship of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a Participant in the 2010 CineStory Writer’s Retreat. Recent exhibitions include Ersatz at SF Camerawork, San Francisco, CA.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Joseph Smolinski: Ground Control at Swarm Gallery

Swarm Gallery's recent show of drawings, animation and sculpture by Joseph Smolinski was an impassioned comment on the state of our environment. In Smolinski's surrealist drawings, animals strike back against the human technologies that have infiltrated their landscape. The works are funny, yet politically charged. The care with which they are rendered lends added weight to the artist's commentary.

Joseph Smolinski. Spinning Tree for Spent Oil, 2008.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a utopian series of images, wind turbines generate power on land and in the open sea. To better adapt them to their surroundings, Smolinski proposes that the turbines be camouflaged as rudimentary trees. There are several color pencil drawings of the tree turbines, as well as a motorized prototype with sharp outlines. Perched atop oil derricks, the trees smoothly capture ocean winds. Meanwhile, in another group of drawings in graphite, creatures such as a sloth and a lion are actively reclaiming their terrain from a tangled throng of wires. Tombstones in a graveyard mark the passing of outdated clean technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines, replaced in Smolinski's vision with the more advanced tree turbine.

Joseph Smolinski. Disconnected - Three-Toed Sloth, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a side gallery, Smolinski presents sculptural installation, drawing and video works about Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a major land art work on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Basing his project on a report about the efforts to preserve this artwork and prevent oil drilling near its site, Smolinski visualizes the worst-case effects. The animation shows an oil derrick exploding and flooding the Jetty. The drawing depicts an oil tanker, sunk off the Jetty's edge. The installation of salt-encrusted rocks from the lake, soaking in oil, operates as a Smithson-esque non-site, a marker of place superimposed upon the white cube of the gallery.

Joseph Smolinski. RIP Jetty, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

Smolinski's visualizations of the Jetty are artfully rendered, and his concerns about the work's preservation are legitimate. However, there have long been large-scale industrial mining operations to recover oil, salt, and various chemicals from the Great Salt Lake, which is rich in minerals and fossil fuels. These operations, and a disused oil jetty from an earlier excavation period, predate Smithson's 1970 artwork. The lake itself is in constant flux, having first risen so that the Jetty was underwater for more than a decade, and more recently shrunk so that the work is entirely landlocked.

This is not to disagree with Smolinski's (and the Dia Foundation's) belief that the Jetty site should be preserved as a cultural landmark rather than subjected to fallout from drilling. I would simply like to have seen what Smolinski's commentary would look like if his argument were to take a more nuanced view of the discussion about the Jetty, its location and its future. The Spiral Jetty itself is a marker of the multiple uses and histories of the Great Salt Lake, one which references geology and human activity alike. Perhaps by allowing more space for humans within his vision, Smolinski might also push his work further toward visualizing an attainable balance rather than a comforting, but fundamentally inaccessible, utopia.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bay Area Gallerists in San Francisco Magazine

This month's San Francisco Magazine has a gorgeous cover story on young SF gallerists including some good friends and former classmates of mine. I am delighted to see these talented entrepreneurs get some press (and confess to a twinge of jealousy at the super-glam photo spreads featuring Jessica Silverman and Joyce Grimm).

Despite its deserving and photogenic subjects, I thought the story lacked depth or insight. The lead asks, "Can a handful of renegade gallerists get the art world to notice SF?" I would argue that 1) this question gets asked every 5 years, 2) each time a group of young entrepreneurs is trotted out as evidence that SF is finally getting its act together and supporting local talent financially, and 3) by the next time the question gets asked, 5 years later, half or more of the spaces covered on the last go-round have had to close or move away to stay afloat. For every Ratio3, there is a Lisa Dent Gallery (closed despite having broken national talents including Hank Willis Thomas and Ala Ebtekar) and a Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery (moved to greener pastures in Los Angeles).

That's not to begrudge anyone his or her success. Ratio3's Chris Perez has worked very hard to promote his artists nationally and to maintain his relationships beyond the Bay Area. All of the gallerists profiled are unquestionably talented, and all have the drive to make it. So do a lot of gallerists not profiled here: Eleanor Harwood, Kimberly Johansson, Kent Baer and Eli Ridgway, and Svea Lin Vezzone, to name just a few.

The article does discuss Bay Area collectors' notorious lack of awareness of the great art being made and shown in their own backyard. This has historically been the thorn in the side of all great galleries here, including longer-established spaces like Catharine Clark Gallery and Frey Norris, who show the same level of innovative, international talent as the galleries profiled by SF Magazine. Rather than propose solutions, the article glosses over this reality, essentially claiming that until the new crop of gallerists turned up, there was really nothing interesting happening here.

Lots of us would beg to differ, even as we celebrate this latest crop of art entrepreneurs.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University to Close

Arts advocates are stunned and saddened by the recent decision taken by Brandeis University's Board of Trustees to close its renowned Rose Art Museum and deaccession the collection of important modern and contemporary artworks. The university argues that, with both tuition revenues and its endowment hard hit by the current economic downturn, the museum is being sacrificed in order to preserve more important programs. They claim that "the museum decision will not alter the university’s commitment to the arts and the teaching of the arts." It is difficult to see how this could possibly be the case.

In Brandeis' own words, "The Rose Art Museum [...] houses what is widely recognized as the finest collection of modern and contemporary art in New England." A raft of contradictory statements have been made in the press by Brandeis President Yehuda Reinharz, so that it's not clear whether Brandeis plans to deaccession and auction the entirety of the Rose's collection or only some works. Either way, the institution will be closed and what might remain of its collection will no longer be made available to the public in whose trust the university is held.

Deaccessioning museum collections is a controversial practice in the best of times. Works held for public benefit, at institutions mandated to serve that interest, are subject to specific conditions of their care and ownership. This is especially the case for artworks that have been donated to a museum, because the donor has expressly given his or her gift in the interest of supporting public access to the works. Deaccessions are always problematic for these reasons - but for a university to turn to its museum collection for ready cash in an economic crisis is reaching a new low. The precedent this action sets is abysmal, and indicates just how little regard Brandeis' trustees have for the university's arts program.

It is an unfortunate reminder of how little value the curators, collectors and patrons, who have supported and nurtured the Rose Art Museum and so many others, are afforded in our society. When arts are among the hardest hit sectors of our economy in these troubled times, curators among the first cut when arts institutions fall on difficult circumstances, and venerable arts institutions closed to address short-term budget gaps, we art lovers should be ashamed and angered by this course of events.

Excellent coverage of the Rose Art Museum decision can be found here:
Art Fag City
Modern Art Notes
Artworld Salon

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coosje van Bruggen (June 6, 1942 - January 10, 2009)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my mentor and onetime employer Coosje van Bruggen. A tremendous artist, writer, curator and thinker, Coosje taught me valuable lessons about the realities of the art world. Her toughness and integrity were unmatched. She will be greatly missed.

Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times

Coosje was already a powerful force when she met Claes Oldenburg, her husband and collaborator for 31 years. She was an assistant curator at the Stedelijk Museum during a fascinating period when the boundaries between art and life were being shattered in every imaginable way. Her partnership with Claes changed the work from monument to something else - not anti-monumental, as she abhorred mediocrity and was always sure of her place in the pantheon of history - but a softer kind of monument, commemorating the wonders of reality in a living place.

Coosje taught me many lessons, some gentle and some painful. She helped me understand what it means to be a professional artist, and ultimately through her guidance I came to realize I would not be one. She showed me the way to my own creative voice, which I found to be a collaborative and scholarly one rather than that of an individual struggling to create in an oversaturated world. Sometimes her insights stung, as when she told me I would be a great teacher "but don't teach art." (I've since come to disagree with that assessment, but I understand why she said it when she did.)

Coosje also showed me what feminism was all about. She came from a generation that had been made to fight for everything they had, challenged in their professional and personal aspirations alike. As a mother and wife, she found her unmistakable intellect uncharitably dismissed by the chattering classes who surrounded well-known figures like her husband. She demanded respect on her own terms, writing monographs on Frank Gehry, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari and Hanne Darboven - an artist whose meticulous, logical practice always seemed to me a kind of visualization of Coosje's thought processes. Claes had his own such visualization:

Cross Section of a Toothbrush with Paste, in a Cup, on a Sink:
Portrait of Coosje's Thinking
, 1983
Haus Esters, Krefeld, Germany
Photo by Attilio Maranzano

"I am a lioness when it comes to my children," she once told me. Always impatient with the ignorant and small-minded, I only ever saw her rage when something was troubling one of her two kids. As I contemplate my own future as a curator and a mother, I always think back to Coosje and how she somehow navigated the work/life minefield, first as a divorced mother of two young children, and later as an equal partner in a work and family relationship that outsiders could simply not understand.

Coosje was always a little bit frail. She said it was because she'd been born during the war, and her physician father had inoculated her with makeshift vaccinations that left her immune system weakened. Perhaps that's a metaphor for how her physical delicacy complemented her mental toughness. I always pictured a tiny baby with eyes of cast iron, stoically bearing the bomb blasts and the needle alike.

Certainly she was a study in oppositions - tiny, with dark hair and intense eyes, but with an infectious laugh that Claes loved to provoke with incessant teasing. Another thing she taught me was what true love looks like (as did my parents) - two older people, together for many years, who find something extraordinary and compelling to talk about every day.

I only wish I could have seen her one more time before she left this world.

"Coosje van Bruggen, Sculptor, Dies at 66." New York Times, February 13, 2009.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire - A Film by Danny Boyle

This weekend, Stephan and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire, the latest film from the director of Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Millions, 28 Days Later and several other, less successful films (the last of which I reviewed on this site about a year ago). Slumdog Millionaire is a wonderfully crafted film, telling a story of everlasting love and triumph over adversity without glossing over its depictions of some of the worst things human beings do to one another. It has my vote for best film of 2008, and may be the best of Boyle's pretty substantial career.

Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor in Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight)

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik (British actor Dev Patel), an 18-year-old Muslim from the Juhu slum in Mumbai who inexplicably makes it to the final round of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Barely educated and working as a chaiwallah at a call center, Jamal is an unlikely trivia champion. So unlikely, that the Mumbai police have hauled him in for questioning on the eve of his chance to win 20 million rupees (about US $400K). The investigator, played by the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan, has no sympathy for this young man at first, but comes to realize that Jamal has remained honest and kind despite a life spent as an orphan on the harsh city streets.

Dev Patel and Irrfan Khan in Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight)

Despite his chronic optimism, Jamal is not a Candide, foolishly faithful in the innate goodness of others. Estranged from his only family, brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), he is in single-minded pursuit of his childhood love, Latika, played by newcomer and Mumbai native Freida Pinto. Jamal will stop at nothing to rescue her from the gangsters and thugs who are keeping them apart. Salim and Latika represent the two possible options for poor, orphaned city kids, which Jamal rejects to make his own way. Salim is driven by power, at the expense of his own family. Latika is a fatalist, resigned to a life as the plaything of others. Only Jamal has the vision to exceed society's low expectations of him.

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight)

I won't give away the story, because you should really go out and see this remarkable film. It's not yet in wide release, but has hit the biggest markets already and will be opening in smaller cities throughout December. Distributor Fox Searchlight has made a puzzling decision to limit the release of this film despite its wide appeal and substantial buzz -- one which I hope they rethink considering Slumdog Millionaire's strong per-screen box office performance.

The film is particularly poignant in light of last week's horrific attacks in Mumbai, which the perpetrators have disingenuously tried to cast as a righteous response by Indian Muslims to poor treatment within India. Slumdog Millionaire does not shy away from depicting sectarian violence, but it shows convincingly why that argument is bunk. The sequence that deals with the massacre of Muslims during the 1993 Bombay Riots is absolutely gut-wrenching. However, poverty affects Indians of all faiths. Jamal's true love Latika is a Hindu, though this is immaterial to the story. What the film really shows is how the poor are abused and can be manipulated by unscrupulous and greedy gangsters. It makes no difference whether those criminals are motivated by money or by religion -- the quest for power makes monsters.

For those who would ask, India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was a real phenomenon. Known in Hindi as Kaun Banega Crorepati (कौन बनेगा क्रोरेपति), the show rekindled India's love affair with Amitabh Bachchan in the early 2000s, and fueled a rivalry between the lauded actor and today's top Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan. One of the best things about Slumdog Millionaire is how the film shows India today, in all its contradictory glory. TV is everywhere, while ancient traditions still persist. Rampant development is unhampered by planning or organization.

More on this tomorrow, when I will finally share some details of my trip to India in October. Stay tuned.

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.

Friday, September 19, 2008

International Adventures

I'm headed East - first to Pittsburgh, where I'll visit the Carnegie International, then to Minneapolis, where I'll catch up with my dear friend Steve Dietz at his new venture, Northern Lights. All that's a run-up for my trip to India, where I'm spending four weeks working with New Delhi-based gallery Nature Morte and some of their artists.

I'm hopeful that the internet in Delhi has become as ubiquitous as some say, but really have no idea what connectivity is like over there as I haven't been back since 2001. I'm planning to check out the brand-new Devi Art Foundation and catch up with the brilliant folks at Sarai, and otherwise go with the flow. Hope to post from there, and at the very least I'll be posting tons of pictures when I get back in late October. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection at Berkeley Art Museum

The collection of Uli Sigg is considered to be one of the most comprehensive in the world with respect to contemporary Chinese art. Sigg is the founder of the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, and has been following the Chinese scene since its early days. If the exhibition currently on view at the Berkeley Art Museum reflects Sigg's interests, it can be said that he is more deeply concerned with the Chinese context for contemporary art than he is interested in work that implicates the global community (or the viewer) in its critique. Perhaps this is reflective of his observations about China, a nation whose focus remains profoundly introspective despite its substantial presence on the world stage. The prevailing concerns here seem to be the infiltration of American marketing into all corners of life, and the stifling presence of the Party within the home.

Luo Brothers, Untitled, 1999

This is a different approach from that of previous shows like Inside Out: New Chinese Art, Asia Society's seminal 1999 survey of the contemporary Chinese art scene. Despite some overlap, the focus of the previous exhibition included more performative works and documents that presented a body-conscious and confrontational methodology. The current show at BAM moves away from that precedent, perhaps because Chinese contemporary art has become so strongly identified with performance, photography and video that it seemed necessary to provide a different perspective.

The curatorial premise centers on the politics of the image under Communism, tied to propaganda that governed the appearance of everyone from Chairman Mao to the average peasant. The artists in this show have largely remained in China, and they experience subtle forms of expression management on a daily basis which they spotlight and lampoon here. The one-child family, the forced smile of the meager proletarian, and the faux-casual demeanor of the Party leadership are all on view. As an investigation of image as propaganda, the show is quite fascinating, the wall texts run through with intriguing facts about Communist thought-policing tactics.

A single viewing of this massive exhibition was not enough to generate a thorough assessment. I hope to return before it closes on January 4 and post a more in-depth account.