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by Emily Nathan
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White Box, the New York alternative space launched in 1998 by the festive art daredevil Juan Puntes, has always sought to have an international presence. It’s fitting, then, that Puntes teamed up with Asia-facing New York art dealer Ethan Cohan and the globetrotting DJ Spooky to make a Skype conversation with dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei the centerpiece of the gallery’s 13th annual spring benefit and silent auction, which took place at the White Box storefront on Broome Street last night, April 25, 2012.

Despite its international allure, the event was low key, sans guest lists and velvet ropes -- in fact it was announced by a lone sign printed on computer paper taped to the glass door. Hors d’oeuvres -- platters of cheeses, bowls of chips and messy piles of chicken quesadillas -- were provided by the homey Lower East Side eatery Casa Mezcal, and did not circulate on small trays held aloft by well-coiffed models, but rather were plopped in great abundance on folding tables.

Ai Weiwei was scheduled to be presented with the first ever Richard J. Massey Award for Arts and Humanity, a modest $5,000 prize. “There are many arts, but there is only one humanity,” Puntes told Artnet Magazine. The artist would join the festivities via Skype at 9 pm, “if the Chinese government, and Verizon, are generous enough not to cut off the transmission,” quipped Cohen.

“I know no other artist,” Puntes explained, “with such fame and recognition as Weiwei, who has chosen to spend his life and devote his work to defending human rights against oppression.”

Along with such honorable sentiments, the other theme of the evening was financial turmoil. No words were minced about White Box’s desperate need for patrons with deep pockets, not least by the auctioneer, C.K. Swett of Philips de Pury & Company, inexplicably attired in black jeans, yellow-tinted sunglasses and a cowboy hat. Swett energetically manned the podium for the live auction of 15 works donated by artists including Alfredo Jaar, James Nares, Shirin Neshat and Ivan Navarro.

“Alcohol is the first principle of charity auctions,” he intoned. “So I implore you, every time you doubt your bid, take another swig!” Juan stepped forward with his encouragement. “Please, please, continue to buy if you don’t want to say bye-bye to White Box!” In the end, the auction action was modest -- the top lot was Alfredo Jaar’s Gold in the Morning (1985), which went for $5,200 -- though the White Box folks professed themselves happy all the same.

As 9 pm neared, the tech team huddled around a single laptop at the front of the room, futzing with cords and tweaking the audio. When Ai Weiwei's familiar face finally appeared, it was doubled, small on the computer and looming, enormous and green, like Orwell's Big Brother, on the wall. “Please be quiet!” Puntes urged the crowd. “We have Ai Weiwei on the line!” 

First to speak to the artist was the lanky, bespectacled art critic Eleanor Heartney. “Hello!” she screamed at the screen, rather too loudly. “I come to you as a representative of the art world, and on its behalf I want to thank you for your courage. You remind us that it is possible to speak truth to power.” Weiwei bowed and nodded, the crowd cooed, and Heartney went on, reading to him from a list of inspirational quotations, beginning with Mark Twain.

After seemingly interminable thanks (from the venerable patron Richard J. Massey, Cohen and Puntes), Weiwei finally responded, crediting his years spent in New York with all that he now knows “about the importance of personal freedom.” After Puntes presented him, metaphorically, with the check, Weiwei waved goodbye to appreciative applause from a by-now quite toasty audience, and the revelry continued.

Last on the roster was the hybrid musical stylings, part hip-hop, part philharmonic, of DJ Spooky, aka artist Paul D. Miller, and a performance by Merce Cunningham’s director of choreography Robert Swinston and award-winning dancer Vicky Shick, who stepped casually into the center of the room and began to move to a Blondie song while still wearing their coats.

Most people didn’t realize this extraordinary event was happening at all, so subtle and strange it was, and continued their conversations -- but it’s safe to presume that the oh-so-sneaky Cunningham, and the always unpredictable White Box itself for that matter, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. Contact Send Email