I pulled into Union Station at about 11AM last Saturday and jumped onto the Metro headed to the Capital Skyline Hotel, site of the first inaugural (e)merge Art Fair. From the outside, the hotel looked outdated yet voguish. The windows had curved edges and a slightly art deco look. Inside the hotel, fair goers were getting settled in with performances and lectures just getting started.
After receiving my press pass, I ventured into the first large event room and encountered the performance of Wilmer Wilson IV. Wilson, slight in stature and standing still, had commenced covering himself in stickers. Framed photographs of Wilson's various performances adorned him on either side of his stage. A passerby asked his infant son if the son felt uncomfortable by the performance, then murmuring to himself, “I’m sure you do.” I found this to be a strange interaction first thing at an art fair. The whole setting seemed odd, a tall thin black man standing alone in the corner of an event room, placing stickers on his almost entirely naked body.
Wilson, who will graduate from Howard University next May, personified the challenge of the emerging art scene in DC. His performance seemed independent of anything else at the fair. The effect seemed desired and haunting at the same time, as the stickers covering Wilson's body harkened issues of isolation, identity, and territorial boundaries. In all of its simplicity, the performance came off visually striking.
Mera Rubell,(e)merge Committee member and owner of the Capital Skyline Hotel, summarized Wilson’s performance during her panel discussion on collecting art, inferring that Wilson’s performance reveals itself simply by listening to and observing it, an unusual critique considering the silence and stillness of the performance. I tend to agree with her that Wilson's silent psychic tenor appeared to be one of his strongest suits.
Moving to the basement parking garage where many of the art installations took place, I became entranced by the grittiness and presentation of the various venues. PEACOCK, an open call art project put together by art fair nomads, Sean Naftel and Chris Attenborough sat in the back middle of the garage. Staying true to their plywood aesthetic, PEACOCK had assembled peg board walls and plywood benches and tables for viewing and presenting the free artwork. Each visitor could take one piece of art with them, complete with a thorough explanation regarding the artist and their donated piece. It seemed as if Sean and Chris were finding homes for lost orphans. I also contributed a series of pencil drawings depicting the original thirteen states in the Union, and much to my delight, most of the drawings had been claimed by the end of the day.
The other venue which piqued my interest in the basement area came way of Manifresh Destiny (see video in previous post) an art installation by Brooklyn based artists Nathan Manuel and D. Billy. Manuel claimed that the installation, a one room FEMA like structure complete with a disco ball, steer horns, and karaoke machine, made a statement about “westward” American sensibilities and traditions. I tested out the karaoke machine from a cushy living room chair and could have spent the entire day there belting out songs. The structure was made impeccably with furnishings that included photographs of Mount Rushmore, an antique lamp and a karaoke machine which included patriotic anthems and popular rocks songs such as “We are the Champions” by the band Queen.
After a brief stop at the lecture series hosted by DC’s top museum, media, educational, and collecting community, I ventured out to poolside to check out J.J. McCracken’s performance piece, Thirst, and the Martyr. This performance focused on two women weighted down from head to toe with earthen pots, blindfolded and outfitted with long spear like, elongated iron ladles attached to their wrists. The women remained tethered by chains and rubber harnesses while the two slept underneath a veil like cloth until the beginning of the performance. At 3PM exactly, the two women rose from their supine positions and made way to opposite ends of the wooden platform, approximately 100 feet in length by 10 feet wide.
This twisted contest appeared to be a kind of resistance drawing reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s early work. The tethered women pulled at one another for hours in pursuit of water troughs stationed at each end of a wooden platform. Occasionally one participant would make it to this destination, usually exhausted and hard put to place the spear ladles into the troughs correctly in order to ladle the water and actually drink it. After about twenty minutes of this exercise, I had enough and went back inside to check out the gallery hotel rooms portion of the fair.
Taking the elevators to the third and fourth floors of the hotel, it dawned on me again that I was in fact at an art fair and not at a university BFA/MFA art opening. The usual fair feeling started to take over, as I witnessed various collectors and NYC gallerista present in the hotel rooms. There were approximately thirty galleries represented, half from the DC and surrounding areas and approximately one third from New York City and another third from various parts of the international gallery community.
Highlights of the upper floors included a touching installation/performance by artist Avery Lawrence with DC’s very own Heiner Contemporary. Lawrence's installation, "Moving a Tree," included a tightly curated space complete with a large video screen, various animated Rockwell inspired watercolors of the artist performing, and a wallpapered room featuring portraits of the artists grandparents for whom Lawrence dedicated the project. In concert with the visual display of objects, Lawrence rode on a treadmill to depict the transformational state of this project which shared the artists personal story of his grandfather's battle with dementia.
A large high definition video screen displayed Avery dressed in what looked like a polo outfit chopping down an old walnut tree on his grandfather’s country property in Virginia. He then transported each slice of the tree to a different location and re-assembled the tree piece by piece. Along the way, Avery seemed to move in place atop an exercise treadmill, while hauling the tree logs from one location to another. This sequence of movements was quite dramatic and heartfelt as I and others in the room became moved by this sentimental dedication by Avery to his grandfather.
Human emotions are sometimes nixed by many artists in the New York City art world for being too sentimental and overly romantic, which in theory, strips away the deeper, more intrinsic meaning of the work. However, Avery’s technically flawless achievement, (it appears the helicopters and sophisticated staging was used to create this film) presents both the human condition and technology in concert, effectively creating a deep “in between” state for the artist to explore, but also to let the rest of us in on this highly personal experience. Deep familial love portrayed with such tender and exquisite care makes Lawrence’s installation, "Moving a Tree" one of the best at this years (e)merge Art Fair.
Two other unique Washington based galleries of note at (e)merge included Curator's Office and Transformer. Curator's Office featured the beautiful and mysterious watercolors of Baton Rouge base artist Dawn Black. Also, I was fortunate enough to meet Victoria Reis, co-founder and artistic Director of Transformer and view the ephemeral and mysterious drawings of recent Corcoran College of Art graduate Emilia Olsen, the featured artist in Transformers room. Both Curator's Office and Transformer are successful in cultivating and capturing the true emerging artist vibe in DC. Additionally, Victoria Reis brought to my attention a group show produced by Transformer for Gallery 31 at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Transformers ability to build a bridge between non-profits, funding organizations, local art schools, museums, and now art fairs such as (e)merge will undoubtedly bear fruit for the DC art scene and serve as a blueprint for other cities to follow.
Congratulations to Mera Rubell, owner of the Capital Skyline Hotel, for heading up a successful inaugural effort at (e)merge. By example, the Rubells are showing the DC community how to develop its art community in a sustainable and vital way, similarly to how the Rubells have been pivotal in helping to place the city of Miami on the international art map. In today’s world where fortunes are squandered on a daily basis, the Rubells are a shining light regarding how philanthropic and proactive re-investments into urban areas can serve as a spring board to accomplish ambitious civic and individual goals while dramatically enhancing the communities where these efforts take place.