NADA Hudson was supposed to be a blast. Billed as a “site-specific project” presented by young dealers in the historic Hudson Basilica -- rather than a traditionally stodgy art fair -- it took shape in my imagination as a massive, haunting affair, with bats in the rafters, giveaways and water slides, hip artists staging interventions in crowded restroom lines and bounties of booze: a real party on the idyllic banks of the river that would justify the four hours and 120-something dollars I spent to get myself there.
What did I find when I arrived on Sunday, tired from a long voyage and hungry for lunch? Nada much. A deserted street with not a coffee shop in sight led me from the train station to the event -- which, proclaimed in the distance by a bouncy castle and a bright blue Airdancer, recalled a small-time county fair or a sleazy car dealership more than a raging New York art-world bonanza.
The old basilica itself is only breathtaking when empty, apparently; for NADA Hudson, its “8,000 square feet of indoor space, theatre space and well over 10,000 square feet of outdoor space” managed to feel cramped and anti-climactic, littered with unidentifiable artworks in seemingly unmanned gallery “booths” -- though “unmarked sections of the floor” is perhaps more accurate -- that were indistinguishable from one another despite a map distributed at the entrance. Plus, the whole extravaganza boasted no smörgåsbord of local eats, but one lone food truck, parked outside in the blazing heat and selling -- of all things! -- fried catfish. No snacks; no coffee; and where were the attractive young folk? I was off to a rough start.
Checklists and press releases? Impossible to find. But, with over 50 exhibitors, even a crank could find some things to like. Artemio (aka the Mexican Contemporary Art Rolls Royce) presented an array of wooden AK-47s, cast in vibrant armor of beaded florals and patterns -- like bedazzled iPhone covers -- and selling for $6,000 each, courtesy of Newman Popiashvili. Male artists: if it's not skulls, it’s guns. (What are you gonna do?)
Chicago-based DJ Philip von Zweck created not original artworks but Xerox copies of the same -- each copy signed, numbered to ensure "authenticity” and given away for free. The real things -- drawings, collages and photographs made by his friends, including Genesis P-Orridge, Chris Vorhees and Deb Sokolow -- were displayed on a sandwich board behind his workstation and were not for sale.
Outside, Kahn & Selesnick, those masters of fictitious histories, installed an old-timey photo booth -- the kind commonly seen at kitschy amusement parks -- for Hudson’s own (hi)story labor(atory); willing subjects eagerly submitted to being dressed in bonnets, collars or three-piece suits and were then photographed in front of anachronistic, sepia-toned backgrounds -- the Western range, an undeveloped forest -- that made the past feel kind of present.
At Rawson Projects, Sam Martineau offered visitors a number of recycled boxes filled with records for our browsing and purchasing pleasure, each 45 enshrined within an album cover that had been modified by the artist. Two birds with one stone: a new jam for the collection and a unique artist’s edition.
At James Fuentes, a Lower East Side hot spot, Brian DeGraw got ironic with a six-foot tall model of The Thinker, here rendered in white plexiglass and ceramic and hunched over a Blackberry cellphone, which he grasps in one hand. Valerie Hegarty presented folksy works in wood at Nicelle Beauchene; two life-sized pigeons, painted in convincing hues of white and gray and appropriately scruffy, hovered on the ground, as if in conversation, at the base of a pedestal bearing a sculpture by Kent Henricksen. Next to the scheming birds, another Hegarty production evidenced a picnic gone awry: a whole watermelon appeared to have fallen from a great height and broken in two, splattering the picnic blanket with vibrant red juice and seeds. It was priced at $6,500, while the pigeons go for $1,000 each -- though I’d say they’re best in a pair.
At Greenberg Van Doren, another New York gallery, Tim Davis’ absurd 34-minute video documenting a number of imagined sports that might feature in the “Upstate New York Olympics” played on loop. It was apparently the only kid-friendly work in the place, drawing a crowd of at least five seemingly engaged tots at every point in the afternoon, and included hilarious clips of suburban gentlemen doing running-jumps over their neighbors’ lawn jockeys and a man performing a series of pilates-class exercises -- on cemetery headstones. Prints from Davis’ video stills sell for around $2,500 and the video itself goes for $10,000.
Workplace gallery, hailing from Newcastle, UK, brought two sculptures by Laura Lancaster that might take the cake as my favorite works at the fair. Viewed from just the right angle, a five-foot long, wooden armature dressed in polystyrene and plaster on a low, white base, morphed into a messy, gestural sculpture of two clasped hands, severed from their arms at the elbow; it was priced at $15,000. A second Lancaster sculpture cast in the same materials stood nearby, three-feet tall and proud, atop a lean pedestal; though seemingly abstract, its forms ambiguous from most perspectives, the committed viewer could eventually discern two entwined figures facing each other: one standing, the other straddling it, pelvis against hips, legs wrapped around waist. Subtle, fascinating for its nuanced, textured surface and fluid shapes, the piece is powerfully erotic; it’s priced at $8,000.
A 3 pm Movement Party performance in the theatre -- a gorgeous, raw space filled with some sixty eclectic, vintage chairs facing a stage -- was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. On the dot, the DJ cut the music he’d been spinning and two young ladies in loose, thrift-store dresses -- whose elegant necks and turned-out feet betrayed their profession -- silently took the stage, facing the five -- yes, five -- audience members. The girls removed their shoes and stood eerily still, arms at their sides, for what felt like hours. Noone moved; noone spoke. An audience member coughed. The girls seemed to implore us with their eyes, inviting us to do something -- and that invitation was endorsed by a hand-scribbled sign, directed at us and taped to a pedestal: “Take a turn on stage.”
This performance, it seemed, was entirely dependent on audience participation -- a fine idea, but in the 30 minutes I sat there, sipping idly at a $7 glass of box wine that might as well have been grape juice, only two brave souls did step forward onto the stage, picking up the iPods at the girls’ feet and donning the headphones. Then the volunteers swayed back and forth without rhythm to a soundtrack that was inaudible to the rest of us, while the dancers -- having finally come to life -- performed a choreographed sequence of sinuous, modern movements around the writhing participant.
If the crowd had been more invigorated, the proverbial stage was certainly set for something interesting to take place. But, to my disappointment, the event was sleepy from start to finish. I wanted to feel that I was where the action is, despite being far from the city; I wanted to feel out of my element but in on something important, something uncomfortable, strange and exciting, an experience offered in a format that was new for all and potentially catalytic. At risk of sounding like an NYC-elitist, I mention the success of DIA: Beacon, that mystical fortress reigning river-side under leafy eaves -- special not only for the masterpieces it houses but for breaking out of the familiar model of art-display, taking us far from the streets and sights we know and welcoming us into a world that feels fresh.
NADA Hudson missed the mark; it failed to harness the potential power of its environment, and instead fell flat. Far from captivated and electrified by the project’s daring and relevance, I felt quite the opposite: that I was out in the boonies, that my Sunday was nearly over, and that I had better get back to the city before I missed the boat.
Perhaps it’s my fault for getting in gear late and missing Saturday’s kick-off; nonetheless, pioneering movements should go out with a flash -- not fizzle in the heat and fade to black.
NADA Hudson, July 30-31, 2011, Basilica Hudson, 110 South Front Street, Hudson, N.Y., 12534.