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Artnet News
Sept. 17, 2009 

Always-controversial Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has landed in some hot water over a performance that involved offering her audience cocaine. Bruguera, who splits her time between Havana and Chicago, is known for pushing the envelope. For instance, she staged an intervention at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2008 that involved escorting guests into a back room and having guards interrogate them about a fictional plot to kill Barack Obama. Her recent, controversial performance took place in Bogota, Colombia, during the conference of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, Aug. 21-30, 2009, a biannual get-together for "performance studies" that actively encourages participants to push boundaries. Apparently, however, some boundaries are harder to push than others.

Bruguera’s performance, which took place on Aug. 27 at an auditorium of the Facultad de Bellas Artes at the Universidad Nacional, drew enough of a crowd that it was transmitted outside to spectators via a large screen. According to various accounts, it began with three figures -- representing, the artist said, a right-wing paramilitary fighter, a left-wing guerrilla and a refugee displaced by the long-running conflict in Colombia -- all speaking simultaneously into a microphone. However, whatever they were trying to communicate was overshadowed when the second part of the show began, with an assistant wading into the crowd carrying a tray laden with lines of coke, presenting it for the audience’s consumption.

Reactions at the time were mixed. According to a student who was present, writing in El Tiempo, the audience assumed the presentation was a joke, until someone tested the drug, and proclaimed it to be "good stuff." At this point, some spectators joined the festivities, and others walked out (mainly the older crowd seated up front, El Tiempo’s correspondent says). Some audience members warned those who were doing the drugs that they were participating in illegal activity, while others continued to try and watch the stage action. Following the commotion, Bruguera herself took the stage, thanking her Colombian audience and exiting. And according to reports, the police were called.

The stunt has provoked considerable uproar in the Colombian press. Colombian minster of education Cecilia María Vélez has said that what occurred was an "illegal act that has to be confronted legally." Various curators and organizers involved with the event have denounced it. Bruguera, for her part, at first said that she was "pleased" with the uproar, but now describes herself as "hurt" by coverage of the work, noting that commentators have focused only on the trays of cocaine, and not her overall intent. Saying that she is solely responsible, she has indicated that she sent a proposal for a performance incorporating cocaine and a gun to the Hemispheric Institute’s organizers, and that both aspects had been prohibited in advance ("censored," she says). In the event, she decided to bring out the coke anyway.

For Spanish speakers, a YouTube clip of Bruguera responding to her critics during a panel at the university after the performance gives a good sense of the passions stirred up. It shows a fiery audience member, who describes herself as an "activist, journalist, artist and direct victim of the violence," denouncing the artist’s piece as superficial and cheap. Bruguera defends herself by saying that she is working with concepts of provocation and contradiction.

For her part, Lina Maria Herrera, the student who wrote up her experience in the audience for El Tiempo, wondered whether the public reaction, in its way, didn’t reflect the true reality of Colombia, where "some people kill each other for drugs, while others consume drugs, others are indifferent, and others make fun."

The Guggenheim Museum in New York has plenty to celebrate as it opens its mono-named retrospective, "Kandinsky," Sept. 18, 2009-Jan. 13, 2010, a survey of 99 paintings by Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), featuring 34 from the Guggenheim Foundation itself, along with a show of 60 Kandinsky works on paper (all from the Gugg holdings, and on view only in New York). The show -- a real knockout -- is of course just up the road from "Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction," Sept. 17, 2009-Jan. 17, 2010, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. What are these curators trying to tell us? Could abstract painting be poised for a comeback?

In any case, abstraction ruled at the Guggenheim’s annual gala on Sept. 16, 2009, held at the museum after several years of taking place at off-site venues. A select group of 250 people ponied up $5,000 per ticket for the occasion, which included the triumphant auction of Ellsworth Kelly’s abstract painting Blue Relief (2007), which sold for $1,175,000, notably above the presale estimate of $1,000,000. The buyer was former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Guggenheim boardmember Amy Phelan, the wife of investment fund manager John Phelan. The total proceeds from the benefit were $2,275,000.

The Kelly painting, which was donated by the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, is described as "a sapphire quadrilateral reminiscent of a shadow cast from an unseen building. . . . a vividly colored form set askew on top of an underlying matte-white panel." It was exhibited at the Guggenheim Bilbao in "Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation" in 2007-08.

Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had invited top cultural figures to the Sistine Chapel on Nov. 21, 2009, for a dialogue on the relationship between faith and art. Though theater impresario Robert Wilson, deconstructivist architect Daniel Libeskind and Bono, the pop singer, had reportedly agreed to attend, one artist who had declined was Bill Viola, whose video works are celebrated for their air of intense spirituality. Now, Viola says he has rearranged his schedule and will be at the meeting after all. "The connection between contemporary art and contemporary spirituality is an urgent and extremely important one," Viola said in a prepared statement. "In these times of instability and conflict there is growing recognition by both secular and religious institutions that peace and understanding will not be possible without the universal language and common vision that only art can provide.  Artists of all cultures and traditions have a vital role to play in envisioning this new future and inspiring the creative dialogue necessary for its success."

After years as an art collector, museum trustee and patron of Studio in a School, Agnes Gund -- currently president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art -- is getting down into the curatorial trenches to organize "Is White a Color," Sept. 25-Nov. 11, 2009, at the Fountain Gallery at 702 Ninth Avenue at 48th Street. "The theme of the show," Gund said in a press release, "came from the white lamb and the Virgin Mary at the feet of Christ on the cross in the central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grünewald at the Unterlinden Museum of Colmar." She asked artists associated with the gallery to make works about their feelings for white as a color, and 24 responded, resulting in a show of more than 40 paintings, sculptures, collages and photographs. Founded in 2000 as a nonprofit co-op, Fountain is the premier venue in New York representing artists with mental illness. For more info, see

Former Museum of Modern Art contemporary art curator Linda Shearer, who most recently served as interim director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, has been named executive director of Houston’s Project Row Houses (PRH). A 15-year-old community-based nonprofit founded by artist Rick Lowe, PRH encompasses a six-block area with over 40 buildings in Houston’s Third Ward; it operates an after-school program for secondary and high school students, a social service residency for single mothers and a community development initiative that builds low-income housing -- and hosts art installations and art residencies in 12 row-house spaces. Shearer succeeds Cheryl Parker, who is pursuing new opportunities. For more info, see

A benefit art sale for the Children’s Cancer & Blood Foundation, featuring more than 75 modern and contemporary artworks, takes place at Sotheby’s New York on Sept. 22, 2009. Contributing artists include Vito Acconci, Rita Ackermann, John Ahearn, Donald Baechler, Ellen Harvey, Tom Otterness, Richard Pettibone, Richard Serra and Mickalene Thomas. The benefit begins at 6 pm; tickets start at a modest $75. For more info, and a preview, click here

Veteran art dealer Michael Werner and his gallery director, Gordon Veneklasen, are launching a new project space in Berlin. Dubbed VW, or Veneklasen Werner, the new gallery debuts at Rudi-Dutschke-Strasse 26 on Oct. 9, 2009, with a show of new works by Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago. The project is something of a fresh direction, in that VW is oriented towards emerging artists and performance, music and other new media. The large and flexible space, located in Berlin Mitte (in a building that houses other galleries, including Galerie Jablonka), and is being overseen by Heike Tosun. The Oct. 9 opening also boasts a performance by disco star Nona Hendryx in a "transmitter tutu."

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