Will Superblue be the 'Infinity Room' writ large?

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Will Superblue be the 'Infinity Room' writ large?
JR, Migrants, Mayra, Picnic across the Border, Tecate, Mexico – USA, 2017. Installation view.

by Frank Rose

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- You could say the whole thing started with an argument over whether to sell tickets.

It was late 2015, and Pace, the blue-chip New York gallery with outposts in London and Beijing, was planning to open its new space in Silicon Valley with a show by the Japanese art collective teamLab. It seemed a good fit: The whole point of Pace Art + Technology, as the new venue was called, was to bring art to the tech crowd, and teamLab’s wildly colorful, highly kinetic electronic environments are an immersive celebration of art, science, technology and nature. But then the teamLab people said, You’re going to sell tickets, right?

Marc Glimcher, Pace’s chief executive, was taken aback. “I said, you can’t sell tickets,” he recalled recently.

Why not? they asked.

Because, he replied, “art galleries sell art, not tickets.”

Then you’re telling us that you’re only in business to sell art to the ultrarich.

“No, no!”—and yet, he realized, they had a point: Art isn’t always a commodity. So they ended up selling tickets — but more important, Glimcher said last week, “That was the kernel of a disruptive idea.”

This “disruptive idea” is poised to reach fruition with the announcement Tuesday of a new venture that aims to reinvent how art is shown. Superblue, as it is called, will open a series of experiential art centers (EACs for short) that won’t sell precious objects, as conventional galleries do. They’ll present art experiences: deep dives into all-encompassing works by such artists as JR, the French photographer who focuses on issues like migration, displacement and imprisonment; and James Turrell, the celebrated Light and Space artist whose massive installation at the Guggenheim Museum seven years ago was described in The New York Times as “a meditative spectacle.”

Superblue plans to open first in Miami in December, in a formerly abandoned industrial building across the street from the Rubell Museum, one of the premier contemporary art collections.

At 50,000 square feet it will be big enough to present multiple artists at once, and its shows will stay up for as long as 18 months, far longer than a gallery exhibition. Ultimately, Glimcher, Superblue’s chairman, and Christy MacLear, the cultural entrepreneur and strategist who will be its chief executive, expect to open several such centers in the United States, Europe and Asia. It’s no accident that their chief operating officer, Marcy Davis, comes from Cirque du Soleil, the troupe that disrupted the circus — before itself being pushed into bankruptcy in the wake of the coronavirus.

Superblue won’t be the first immersive art enterprise. A company called Artechouse has set up smaller-scale experiential art spaces in Washington, Miami Beach and New York’s Chelsea Market, and teamLab went on to partner with a Japanese real-estate developer in teamLab Borderless, an enormous showcase on Tokyo’s waterfront that drew 2.3 million people in its first year, more of them from the United States than from any other country beyond Japan itself.

Both Artechouse and teamLab Borderless charge an admission fee, and Superblue will do the same — for something under $40 in Miami, with the artists sharing the proceeds. “You could say it’s an evolution of patronage from the collector to the public,” MacLear said. “From the collector owning the work, to the public engaging directly with the artist.”

Beyond sharing ticket revenue with its artists, Superblue expects to commission them to create new works, offering direct financial support to get them started and in other cases helping them land commissions for public artworks from cities, festivals and the like. The tab for such works can run into the millions — witness “The Bay Lights,” Leo Villareal’s monumental light installation on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which cost $8 million to install in 2013 and another $4 million to make permanent in 2016, not counting the electric bill. Villareal is part of the Superblue stable — “we’re loosely calling it a network,” MacLear said — and like several others, including JR, teamLab and Turrell, he is also represented by Pace. Others are not, and according to MacLear the two businesses are separate. How much it’s all expected to cost appears to be a closely guarded secret.

Immersive art installations have been around since at least the late ’50s, when emerging pop artists like Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg set up anarchic “environments” in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. By the mid-60s, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol were teaming up with engineers at AT&T’s Bell Labs to create tech-infused works that were meant to be experienced rather than admired. More recently, Yayoi Kusama’s “Infinity Mirrored Room” at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea and Random International’s “Rain Room” at the Museum of Modern Art had people standing in line for hours to experience a few moments of — was it art? No matter. “It felt like eternity,” one Kusama fan told The Times, referring not to the nearly three-hour wait he’d endured in wintry weather but to the 45 seconds he got to spend amid the twinkling lights of her walk-in-closet-size simulation of infinity.

Yet even mega-galleries like Zwirner or Pace are ill-equipped to handle such work. Their stock in trade is art that sells for seven figures or more by the likes of Jeff Koons, Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, David Hockney, Mark Rothko and Julian Schnabel. All the same, Glimcher said, “we would tend toward the installation and away from the object, knowing that money was going out the door and not in the door. The way we were going to get money back in the door was by selling paintings.”

Fortunately for Glimcher, collectors are still buying paintings — or they were until the coronavirus struck. (Like other galleries, Pace has laid off a substantial contingent of workers, and the immense new headquarters it opened in Chelsea last September was closed for months and has only recently reopened by appointment only.)

But for broader audiences, and younger people in particular, art objects are no longer the draw they once were. This is part of a much bigger shift in favor of immersive experiences and against consumerism in general. For well more than a decade, trend-watchers have noted a growing preference for experiences over things. “And this is doubly true with the coronavirus,” said B. Joseph Pine II, co-author with James H. Gilmore of “The Experience Economy,” a book that declared the crux of business today to no longer be goods or services but experiences. The pandemic, he added, “makes us sit back and think, what makes us happy? What does life mean? We’ve got enough stuff.”

For Pace, the road to experiences ran through Silicon Valley, where Glimcher — whose father, Arne Glimcher, now 82, founded Pace 60 years ago and built it into a powerhouse — forged a dense web of connections. The most critical of these was the billionaire activist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow and heir of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who joined Glimcher in funding the new venture through the Emerson Collective, her investment vehicle for social change. Another key figure was Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, now a co-founder of Superblue, who set up Pace’s London outpost in 2010 and later headed Future/Pace, the gallery’s first attempt to break into experiential art. This eventually led to an initiative called PaceX that was the immediate forerunner of Superblue.

“Laurene told me, It isn’t going to be called PaceX — sorry,” Glimcher said. “We’re breaking all the rules, and we’ve got to come up with something new.” All this rule-breaking put him in mind of the Blue Rider, the radical art movement that sprang up in Germany before World War I. One of his younger employees heard that and came back with Superblue.

“I said, That’s the worst thing I ever heard,” Glimcher recalled, “but I couldn’t get it out of my head.” He mentioned it to his meditation teacher, Thom Knoles, a one-time protégé of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles in the ’60s. According to Glimcher, Knoles told him that the word Krishna is Sanskrit for “superblue” — a liberal translation, apparently, but no matter. Superblue it would be.

And the artists? “I loved, loved, loved the idea,” said JR, reached by phone as he was returning from a shoot in the low-income suburbs of Paris. “I started right away working and brainstorming.” Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn of Studio Drift feel much the same. “Luckily now there’s this energy and movement going on where our work fits in,” said Nauta, adding that “there is no market” for the kind of art they make — like the 300 light-bearing drones they sent swooping out across central Rotterdam in May in celebration of health and freedom.

“I’ve never sold anything,” said Es Devlin, the London-based Superblue artist who designed the astonishing set for Sam Mendes’s acclaimed production of “The Lehman Trilogy”— an 800-square-foot rotating glass box in which the rise and fall of an American dynasty transpires as if in a giant bauble. More recently she staged a choir made up of people dressed as portrait subjects from the Louvre for the Louis Vuitton fall/winter women’s fashion show, with music by Bryce Dessner of the National. She doesn’t have gallery representation either, working with a manager instead.

“It’s pretty clear I’m a theater animal,” she added — so at least she has no problem with selling tickets. Will Superblue work? “We’ll know more after we’ve done it,” she concluded. “Ask me this question in a year.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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