Feature Galleries are blurring the lines between high art and entertainment as they try to attract new audiences.
Inside a dilapidated warehouse behind the Angel tube station in North London lies the German artist Carsten Höller's latest piece of work: The Double Club. Funded by Italy's Prada Foundation, the temporary installation is a restaurant, dance club and gallery space where the Democratic Republic of Congo meets the West. Famous for his giant metal slides at the Tate Modern two years ago, Höller often incorporates a sense of fun in his work, which allows his audiences to visually, as well as physically, engage in it. "I'm interested in the idea of entertainment and fun," he said in an interview with Bloomberg in November. "There's something fishy about it ... because fun and art are slightly incompatible. Fun is considered to be dumb, art is considered to be smart. I think that the whole notion of fun is underestimated."
Down at The Double Club, there is certainly a lot of fun to be had. The installation, which will stay open for six months, includes a dining room where visitors can choose from a menu offering a selection of European and Congolese dishes, such as Scottish red-legged partridge and freshly grilled goat kebabs. On the walls, hanging beside colourful pictures of Congolese town art, are paintings by Andy Warhol and the Italian artists Olle Baertling and Carla Accardi. In the back room, revellers sway on a revolving dance floor (one turn per hour, so it's perfect for novices), while a DJ mixes a blend of African beats and western disco. Outside, plastic chairs, palm trees and parasols adorn the Portuguese-tiled courtyard.
The installation/venue, which is intended as a continuous, cross-cultural piece of art, is the latest example of a growing trend in the world of modern art - one where the lines between art, entertainment and catering are increasingly becoming blurred. Late nights, live bands, fancy dress balls, DJs and dinner parties are just some of the methods employed by galleries and museums in their efforts to attract new gallery-goers and to get noticed. "In the last five years, museums and galleries have opened their doors to new events in their attempt to reach new audiences," says Andrew Brown, the senior strategy officer for visual arts at the UK-based Arts Council. "These events are all part of the growing popularity of art - more people are seeing it."
It wasn't always so. Contemporary art galleries were once places of quiet contemplation for intellectuals and serious-minded folk. Art shows and museum exhibitions were considered to be stuffy, highbrow occasions where the average individual often ran the risk of being bored. With the exception of performance art, the art world as a rule didn't go out of its way to interact with the wider world, nor did it try to become a social event or a public spectacle. In the words of the German playwright Hans Johst: "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my gun."
Not any more. The past few decades have seen contemporary art rise to dizzying heights of fame, attracting not only a new flock of art lovers but also a global following spanning celebrities and fashionistas, as well as the regular A-list party crowd. Artists and dealers now appear in the gossip pages of magazines and newspapers. The fashionable set seek out tickets for exclusive art parties, while cool kids hang out at gallery openings in London's trendy East End. "Art has become very fashionable," says Brown. "In many ways, the art world is providing what the pop and club world provided in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is the place to be."
From Beijing to Miami via Abu Dhabi this autumn there was a smattering of A-list art parties. The Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art in Beijing recently hosted an exclusive bash for their newly opened exhibition titled Christian Dior and Chinese artists, the latest public clinch between fashion and art. The Oscar-winning actresses, Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard, as well as the Bond girl Eva Green, were among the guests at the show, which features works by well-known Chinese artists alongside Dior originals. At the launch party of The Double Club, everybody from the fashion kings Alexander McQueen and Stephen Jones to Sting's daughter, Coco Sumner, was spotted mingling. Art Basel Miami Beach is notorious for its wild parties and has turned entertaining into an art form. "Let's face it, a lot of people, especially those deeply embedded in the art scene, won't even go near an opening or event if they can't get a free drink and some food," says Elaine Ng, the editor of the New York-based Art Asia Pacific magazine.
In the UAE, too, galleries and museums are increasingly embracing live events. At the artparis Abu Dhabi fair in November, the Cultural Foundation staged an art performance evening that the organisers described as a "symposium-show". Curated by Fabrice Bousteau, the editor of France's Beaux Arts magazine, the event brought together a series of live performances, music, debates and video projections and, almost more importantly, a host of glamorous galleristas.
Dubai's recently opened contemporary art space Carbon 12 celebrated its opening with a lavish, invitation-only gathering with a guest list full of It-girls. Boutique 1 at The Walk launched its first art exhibition with a selection of works by the Turkish-born artist Selma Gürbüz and a party packed with the kind of people who regularly make best-dressed lists. "There are so many galleries springing up here nowadays. Everybody's competing for attention," says Simone Sebastian from the Dubai-based events organisers 9714, who have planned parties for spaces such as The Third Line and Carbon 12. "Throwing a big party certainly puts you on the public's radar and is a good way of merging art, fashion, food and music."
In their efforts to reel in new audiences, however, galleries and museums have also left them divided. Traditional types believe that art galleries should contain something serious. And that all the late-night entertainment is detracting the attention from the art. Others argue that art should first and foremost be an enjoyable experience. That is what these events, in fact, do. They bring people to the art who otherwise might never have entered a gallery or a museum.
So what about Höller's installation? Is The Double Club art or is it, as some critics have suggested, nothing but a tourist gimmick? "Does it matter?" says Brown. "One of the great things about artists is that they come at life from a different angle, ask questions that the rest of us might not otherwise have thought about. Whether or not the club is art, it is certainly going to be interesting, fun, clever and unusual."
theanyspacewhatever The Guggenheim Museum, New York (until Jan 7) At the Guggenheim's Museum's latest exhibition, gallery-goers can check in to the Revolving Hotel Room, an installation by Carsten Höller, which is made of four connected glass discs - complete with double bed, dining table and chairs - that slowly move around each other. For US$259 (Dh950) per night, guests can sleep in the bed, peruse other artworks and use the bathroom in the Guggenheim's executive office area. It's part of the museum's exhibition titled theanyspacewhatever, which features interactive works by 10 contemporary artists (@email:www.guggenheim.org).
GSK Contemporary The Royal Academy of Arts, London (until Jan 19) Divided into two parts, The Royal Academy's newest experimental exhibition is open until midnight three times a week. The show blends contemporary art with cabaret, a "pop-up restaurant" called Flash, and a late night snack bar, which is an art installation, curated by temporarycontemporary, "where art dissolves and evolves into social activity". The three-month restaurant, the brainchild of the owners of London's Bistroteque, was built using 191 art crates and has already fed the photographer Juergen Teller and his wife, the influential gallerist Sadie Coles and the stylist Katie Grand (@email:www.royalacademy.org.uk).
Shunt Vaults Beneath London Bridge (ongoing) The Shunt Vaults blur the boundary between gallery, performance space and buzzy night spot, with surreal, cabaret-like promenade shows by a sitting theatre company, video installations, one-off musical events and assorted weird stuff. Take the Paper Cinema - an inspired puppet show using paper cut-outs and Anglepoise lamps. The venue is always the star of the show, however. A labyrinth of railway arches, it dares you to follow the performers into its enchanted, subterranean realms (@email:www.shunt.co.uk).