Did Tinder Swipe Left on Political Art in the Hamptons? Accusations Fly After Show at Surf Lodge

An artwork has gone missing amid claims of censorship at the tony Montauk club.

Rainer Ganahl and his piece Syria in
Rainer Ganahl and his piece Syria in "Cultural Programme," from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of BFA.

A bitter dispute has erupted over an art show at Montauk’s Surf Lodge, a trendy hotel on Long Island, following the removal of politically charged artwork by artist Rainer Ganahl. The debacle has managed to entangle the dating app Tinder, the artist Richard Phillips, and one of the most high-profile party destinations in the Hamptons. Those involved disagree on what motivated the two works’ removal. Regardless, Ganahl and his dealer are calling foul.

Ganahl’s works were originally scheduled to remain on view through August 10. But when the artist’s dealer, Kai Matsumiya, visited Surf Lodge on July 30, they were nowhere to be found.

Neither work is an obvious fit for a venue committed to carefree summer fun. One of them, installed on an outdoor deck hosting events sponsored by Tinder, is a highway sign with an exit arrow pointing toward the word “Syria” written in both English and Arabic. The sign is meant to remind you, said Ganahl, of “what’s on the other side of the sea.”

Rainer Ganahl, <em>Syria</em> in "Cultural Programme," from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

Rainer Ganahl, Syria in “Cultural Programme,” from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

The second, originally installed on a flag pole outside the hotel, is a small flag reading “Sad!” in a nod to President Donald Trump’s frequent use of the word on Twitter. (The word is printed in a Gothic-looking font called Wallau, created in Germany in 1930 and used heavily by the Nazis; it’s also featured in a new series of works by Ganahl.)

Sometime before July 30, the works were taken down—in part, hotel representatives say, due to complaints from guests. The situation highlights the difficulty of showing challenging work at a non-traditional venue with competing commercial commitments and staffed by employees not used to dealing with art.

“I made site-specific works for them and they kind of treated it like trash,” said Ganahl to artnet News. “Tinder was really paying a lot of money, I was told. They wouldn’t tell me how much, but the numbers are crazy.”

Rainer Ganahl, <em>Sad</em> in "Cultural Programme," from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

Rainer Ganahl, Sad in “Cultural Programme,” from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

Matsumiya said that several employees told him that sponsor concerns were behind the decision. But in an email responding to artnet News, a representative for the dating app said, “Tinder had nothing to do with any artwork being removed.”

“Absolutely, we did screw up,” Alan Rish, the Surf Lodge’s PR agent, told artnet News. “I have apologized and apologized, and I will keep on apologizing.” He denied, however, that the works were censored, or that Tinder had anything to do with their removal, saying, “we’ve never had a sponsor tell us to take something down. They don’t rule us.”

Rish said that the Syria sign had received negative feedback from hotel guests and locals, which contributed to the decision to take it down early, after the opening weekend. “Montauk has a really conservative side, a judgmental side,” said Rish. “The piece did what art is supposed to do, which is to polarize, to shock a little. But we said, ‘well people are hating it, so let’s take it down early.'” Rish said that the hotel remains a big fan of Ganahl’s and would happily work with him again.

(Rish then added that the outdoor works were never supposed to stay up for more than a week, though Ganahl says he was never informed of that schedule. “Why would anybody agree to such a treatment? A one-month show but my work can only be up for one week?”)

Tinder posted this photograph of their banner at the Surf Lodge on July 17. Rainer Ganahl’s flag, now missing, was originally on display beside the two branded flags. The photo has since been deleted. Screengrab via Instagram.

Following Matsumiya’s July 30 visit, Syria was retrieved from its storage area and hastily reinstalled off to the side in a less prominent location. (The flag artwork, which is estimated at $4,000, is still missing as of press time.) Both works were part of part “Cultural Programme,” a presentation by Kai Matsumiya Gallery that included a group show indoors and several outdoor works.

“The show was really questioning corporate branding itself,” said Matsumiya, noting that he was given free reign to show whatever work he chose. “In any context, even at luxurious getaways with these trust fund kids, there really is no escape when there are such massive things happening out there in the world.”

An inflated flamingo raft floats where Rainer Ganahl's <em>Syria</em> artwork originally stood as part of "Cultural Programme," from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

An inflated flamingo raft floats where Rainer Ganahl’s Syria artwork originally stood as part of “Cultural Programme,” from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

The project has a high-profile supporter: artist Richard Phillips, an avid surfer with a home in nearby Amagansett. The Surf Lodge had asked him for years to show his work at their space, but instead he decided to invite three art galleries to curate their own programs over the course of the summer. The Kai Matsumiya show follows a presentation by Bushwick’s Signal gallery, and Basel’s Weiss Falk will close out the season.

“I thought it would be an interesting to see what they could do about changing the conversation about art on the East End,” Phillips told artnet News. “[Ganahl’s] were some of the strongest works that I’ve seen anywhere this summer because it takes the political dimension directly into the area where it might be most forgotten and avoided. I think it was 100 percent successful.”

Rainer Ganahl's <em>Syria</em> artwork reinstalled in "Cultural Programme," from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

Rainer Ganahl’s Syria artwork reinstalled in “Cultural Programme,” from Kai Matsumiya Gallery, at the Surf Lodge. Courtesy of Rainer Ganahl.

“I’m extremely sensitive to this type of matter because I’ve publicly gone through a lot with my own work,” said Phillips, who was not sure why Ganahl’s work was no longer on view. “I am going to work as hard as I can to resolve this.… I invited them, and it’s on me, in some sense, to see what I can do to get things put right.”

“Cultural Programme” is on view at the Surf Lodge, Montauk, July 9–August 10, 2017.


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