What Does the Basketball World Want With Warhol’s Pee? Did Art Just Die at Giza’s Pyramids? + Other Questions I Have About the Week’s Art News
Plus, is Buzzfeed's Buzzy the Robot art's next big thing?
Curiosities is a column where I comment on the art news of the week, sometimes about stories that were too small or strange to make the cut, sometimes just giving my thoughts on the highs and lows.
Below, some questions posed by the events of the last week…
1) They Know Warhol Peed on It, Right?
According to my research, the Barclays Center is one of the best places in Brooklyn to see “basketball” and other sporting games. Not really my thing, honestly. But as my colleague Katya Kazakina reported on Friday, things are getting arty over there. This weekend, Barclays had an Andy Warhol portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat on view.
The painting’s stadium field trip was a promo for Christie’s auction of that work on November 11, where people are promising it might make more than $20 million. But the viewing also doubled synergistically as a promo for the debut of the “Crown Club,” a new members-only restaurant for court-side ticket holders at Barclays.
Having Basquiat’s visage on display there is appropriate, since the Crown Club is, in part, named in honor of Jean-Michel’s signature crown motif. (The other part of the inspiration for the Crown Club name, a press release said, is rapper Biggie Smalls, who was also fond of crowns. And then there’s the fact that Brooklyn is the “county of Kings.” And, of course, it can be taken to honor legendary Brooklyn eatery Crown Fried Chicken.)
Warhol’s Basquiat portrait is very special. It has a regal aura, with its muted gold tones. But above all, it is historic, as Warhol’s “only known portrait executed in oxidation form,” as a press release on NBA.com boasted.
I don’t know much about basketball, but I know this: “executed in oxidation form” is the fine-art way of saying “Warhol peed on it.”
Why so coy, Barclays Center? Could it be that you don’t want to remind guests they would be sitting under a piss-soaked painting when trying to sell them a new luxury dining experience at a stadium previously most celebrated for $10 bottles of Bud Light? Possibly.
But I could be wrong that they are deliberately under-selling the urine angle on the painting. Maybe Warhol’s “oxidization” works are just right for the Crown Club.
As Christie’s itself noted back in 2008 of the “radically scatological approach” displayed in Warhol’s piss paintings, the works “insist on a frank carnality in their mode of execution” and “allude to practices current in the underground fetish scene in New York, which Warhol frequented.”
And the Crown Club, with its “velvet furnishings, antique mirrors, elegant parquet floors and a richly residential array of textures and fabrics,” is striking a distinct sex mansion vibe. So, I do hope that some marketing genius from Barclays Center talked to Christie’s and was like, “nothing says VVIP luxury like a golden shower.”
2) Do We Really Need Robot Art at the Pyramids?
The big viral art news of the week was Egyptian customs holding up Ai-Da, the U.K.-based, Artificial Intelligence-powered “robot artist,” who was traveling to Egypt for “Forever Is Now,” a contemporary art show held outside the ancient pyramids in Giza. Evidently, Egyptian authorities thought her internet connection and camera eyes might be used for spying.
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So, was this news event: A) a wacky customs mix-up, which is how the U.K. ambassador rendered it; or B) an ominous parable that points to the paranoid and alarming nature of the current al-Sissi regime, which has been described as an eager jailer of journalists even as the U.S. continues to send it unconditional military aid? Or maybe C) both?
Answer: I don’t know!
What I do know is that the customs mix-up was a big PR boon for “Forever Is Now,” and that exhibition, as far as I am concerned, looks pretty gratuitous. It makes you nostalgic for the days when that one Danish artist photographing himself having sex on top of the Great Pyramid was a scandal in Egypt.
You can get a sense of the overall vibe in the show’s official YouTube trailer. Big action-movie-style text flashes onto the screen accompanied by a thundering soundtrack: “FOR THE FIRST TIME… IN ART HISTORY… A SPECTACULAR EXHIBITION… AMIDST THE GREATEST WONDERS… OF THE ANCIENT WORLD.”
Ai-Da is billed as a bleeding-edge AI experiment, but she looks like a sex robot and has the painterly refinement of a Roomba. In “Forever Is Now,” she mainly serves as a spokes-mannequin, “presenting” a mechanical statue of herself deposited in a box. The inert replica has three legs instead of two, a mutation meant to “provoke questions” in some way about the prospect of human body modification. Deep.
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That’s not even the silliest thing in the Giza exhibition. The other big offender is the intervention of globe-trotting street artist/Ray-Bans model JR, who has created a big billboard which, when properly aligned, makes it so you can take a picture that looks like the top of the Great Pyramid is coming off. It’s art for people who ask themselves, “Is there some way I can stand before the last remaining Wonder of the Ancient World—but also clearly signal to my Instagram followers that I am bored?”
He and famed Blurred Lines producer Pharrell mugged it up together around the site over the weekend.
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I understand that tourism is the lifeblood of Egypt’s economy, and they are trying to lure wealthy visitors back in the COVID era. But surely you don’t need contemporary art at the Great Pyramids. They are the Great Pyramids. They are literally the most awe-inspiring, historic, and treasured works of architecture in the world. They have “Great” in the name.
If the public’s sense of historical curiosity is so disintegrated that people can’t even get excited about a trip to the pyramids without PR stunts, we are in real trouble.
“Art was INVENTED in Ancient Egypt… 5,000 years ago!” famed archaeological hype-man Zahi Hawass yells in the “Future Is Now” promo video. Evidently addressing the art in the show directly, he continues, “Can you believe it? You are going to be known in history!”
But history has two ends, so maybe you could put it like this: Art was invented there—and there it dies, as robo-art and Instagram gimmicks.
3) Is This Buzzfeed Quiz a Work of Art?
Speaking of artificial intelligence and art… Remember when there was briefly some talk of GAN-ism as an art movement (i.e. works created by artists using Generative Adversarial Networks, a la Obvious, the French collective who sold an A.I. portrait at Christie’s a few years ago)?
Well, the cultural cachet of that particular technology has morphed very fast indeed, going from “art’s next big thing” to “goofy novelty”. The Buzzfeed quiz known as “Art History Majors Who Love Pop Culture Will Be Able To Pass This Quiz” is evidence of this, even if I have to admit I am actually impressed by this level of investment in a Buzzfeed quiz.
The post is co-authored by Buzzfeed CEO and viral-content Sith lord Jonah Peretti and “Buzzy the Robot.” See, Peretti’s Buzzfeed elves created an art A.I. that they tasked with learning various art techniques. They then asked Buzzy to spit out images in different artists’ styles, each depicting a subject somehow related to that artist as a visual pun.
This set-up is a bit labored, so an example explains it best. It’s like, Leonardo diCaprio rendered in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. Or Rick Ross in the style of Bob Ross. Or MC Skat Kat in the style of MC Escher.
The artists chosen for the quiz, I have to say, are impressively obscure (though, disappointingly, Obvious is not among them). As for the art, Buzzy’s impressions are not always Wolfgang Beltracchi level. But I am sure Buzzy is only getting started. Imagine the Buzzfeed Quizzes this technology can give us.
Not to brag, but I got the “Flaming Brain” trophy on this one.
4) Who’s Up for Post-Colonial Coffee at PS1?
Finally, if you go to MoMA PS1, don’t miss this one hidden artwork that you may not know is an artwork. Be sure to ask at Mina’s café for a Café Touba.
This is not just a pick-me-up. A label explains that the peppery coffee treat was invented by Sheik Ahmadou Bamba, a Sufi leader and opponent of French colonialism in Senegal. It packs a punch in pure coffee terms, but drinking it is meant to make you think about capitalism and politics. (I have read that you can also savor the flavor of Café Touba in ice cream form at Sugar Hill Creamery, though that is not an artwork, and has little to say about capitalism and politics.)
Don’t think that you are done with the journey when you finish sipping. Turn the cup over and you’ll find the surrealist logo of the art collective behind Café Touba’s cameo at PS1, stamped on the bottom. Designed by Bing Lee, it shows “a cheeky vessel ready to be filled or shattered, while three hustling, high-heeled limbs take two steps forward and trot two steps back, depending on which way you’re looking.”
Now that’s art coffee.
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