September 25, 2015 @ Stockholm
Los Angeles-based artist Frances Stark's cleverly employed mixture of teaching, language, intimacy and rap music makes her a kind of folk hero in the art world, but not a big-money market artist, despite her ballyhooed inclusion in the Venice Biennale. Which is why, when she was presented with an Absolut Art Award on September 25 during a gala dinner in Stockholm, she felt good to be acknowledged by the multibillion-dollar company. In a Stockholm hotel a few days after the gala, she is having Greek yogurt, muesli and a cafe latte and she is jetlagged, but not hungover. "I don't drink anymore," she says, hinting at the irony of her win. In a few hours, she will travel back to L.A. to install a new midcareer survey at the Hammer Museum ("UH -OH, Frances Stark 1991-2015," opening Oct. 11).
I ask her how it feels to be presented to the relative mainstream by the Absolut Art Awards. "I do take it seriously, and it does mean something, especially on the heels of being completely disregarded by a whole institution," she says, referring to her public battle with the University of Southern California administration, which resulted in her leaving her professorship and making art that criticizes the school. "It feels good. I've worked really hard and earnestly for a long time, so it is a big deal for me to get affirmation from a jury."
The Absolut prize was initiated in 2009. Since 2013, every other year, one recipient is selected for the categories of Art Work and Art Writer. This year, the writer champ is Tate curator Mark Godfrey, who is given 20,000€ and a 25,000€ production budget to make a book. His prize-winning proposal is an anthology of dialectical texts produced by black artists in America in the 1970s. A group show is planned at the Tate to coincide with the publication. Undoubtedly, there will be a special thanks to Absolut.
Stark also receives a 20,000€ fee along with a 100,000€ production budget. Her proposal is to write and produce a pedagogical opera. The project is still incubating, but the idea is to translate Mozart's Magic Flute into an Americanized tale, playing with the ideas of Islamism and Freemasonry.
The Awards are a continuation of the vodka company's 30-year history of working with artists. While they once asked the likes of Andy Warhol, Rosemarie Trockel and Keith Haring to design their ubiquitous print ads, the company has more recently commissioned pop-up Art Bars designed by artists such as Los Carpinteros and Ry Rocklen (who both created temporary watering holes for Art Basel Miami Beach). In Stockholm, Absolut also collaborated on an Art Bar. The young Swedish artist Ilja Karilampi programmed two nights of Swedish rap and dance music at a nightclub entered through a beaded curtain at the back of a typical Swedish convenience store.
Nearly 200 guests attended the gala dinner in the circular courtyard of the early 20th-century offices of Ivar Kreuger, a famously crooked safety match baron. Celebrants included artists who had previously collaborated with Absolut like Mickalene Thomas, Jeremy Shaw and Adrian Wong. Whoever was in charge of the award plaques mixed up Stark's and Godfrey's, so Stark was given the Art Writer award and vice versa, which sparked laughter throughout the room.
New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, who headed up the judging process, presented the awards with a gloriously off-the-cuff introduction, blaming his verbal paroxysms on the boozy drinks, and giving Stark and Godfrey a pair of plastic flamingos he'd nicked from the venue's loo. "And as much as I'm paid to say this, I do want to say sincerely that I'm extremely thankful to Absolut," he said. "Kidding aside, it's not the vodka speaking. I've been on a few juries, but the collaboration with Absolut is quite remarkable, and the way they are seriously dedicated to art and artists is quite astonishing. I think you can all feel tonight that it's not about the publicity; it's not about the glitter."
This writer's impression over the weekend was that the people at Absolut who care about art really care. And that's worth at least a couple of shots.