New York Doesn’t Exist

But the images survive forever. Postcard from a residency.

Early morning on the D train to Coney Island. Photo: Esben Weile Kjær.

I have been in New York since the beginning of September. It’s been a little over a year since I got my MFA. During my student days, I was always fascinated by older colleagues flitting around the world from one residency to the next, enjoying the life of a flaneur paid for by foundations and patron-type benefactors. That kind of transaction is as old as art itself, and now here I am, finally finding myself in New York on a residency with a studio in Brooklyn.

I spent the first month hating the city. Hating how expensive, fast, and superficial it is. “Easy, babe. You’ll get used to the hustle,” said one of my New Yorker friends when I complained. She was right, of course. Now, a few months later, I feel I can navigate the city. In a way, I love it. Everything is as generic as usual in an unfolding narrative of growth. Nothing new under that sun.

The sun is bright these days, making everyone break out their sunglasses. The leaves have turned red, and everything smells of Pumpkin Spice Latte and pee. The city went from Halloween straight into Thanksgiving while Christmas decorations and ice rinks are slowly growing more insistently present. Everything happens so emphatically – and all at the same time. I try to float serenely through it all. I’ve taken to walking across the Williamsburg Bridge every morning. The trip takes an hour and a half with the sun hitting my face directly and a view of the Manhattan skyline before my eyes. This is my best studio visit yet: confrontational, noisy, and entertaining. All the streets, vistas, and buildings are symbols from jewellery and key chains, or sets in movies and series I’ve watched all my life. It’s absolutely perfect fodder for my increasingly strong case of main-character syndrome.

That’s actually been an overall theme for me during my stay: the issue of how images are created, branded, exposed, and distributed. The other day, I had dinner at one of the city’s new celebrity spots, Sartiano’s, with a group of artists and musicians. Between dishes, we went outside to smoke, and the paparazzi photographers in front of the entrance suddenly went more berserk than usual. We joked that the American royal family must have arrived (meaning the Kardashian clan, of course) and it turned out we were absolutely right.

When we got back in, Kim Kardashian had arrived and settled down at a table with Jeff Bezos. She was there for fifteen minutes, tops, before disappearing again. But the pictures from the evening still featured on social media like a reverberating echo several weeks later. Like a mass-produced postcard of the New York skyline sent home to Europe with some small, personal narrative added. The joy of recognising things is in full bloom here.

I thought the recently completed Performa festival would be one of the highlights of the autumn season, but the performances I saw seemed oddly dated, so I decided to opt out of that particular hoo-hah at a pretty early stage. I have very little patience with hour-long readings of political theory accompanied by disjointed background music. Perhaps I’m too provincial for the slow pace. Perhaps long minimalist performances become a kind of soothing therapy if you’ve lived here for many years. Fortunately, the city is full of plenty of other good art.

A few weeks ago, I saw Arca perform at the Park Avenue Armory, where she was on four nights in a row. Arca is probably my generation’s great alternative pop star; she is to millennials and Gen Z what Björk is to my parents. The extent of her improvisation made a major impression on me. She repeatedly engaged directly with the audience and lighting and sound personnel in order to jointly decide how the concert should evolve. On three occasions, stylists and hair and make-up artists came on stage to change her look, all blown up on big screens. It was all so beautifully brutal and chaotically revealing. All of the work and effort that usually takes place behind the scenes were brought out into the spotlight in the most beautiful way. What energy, what generosity.

Kayode Ojo, Kayode Ojo Studio, © Kayode Ojo, 2023.

A few days later I found myself at an exhibition whose colours and materials were in many ways similar to the dinner I had attended at Sartiano’s: pyramidal towers of champagne glasses and metallic Paco Rabanne dresses. Everything was silver and white like in a Celine store. Kayode Ojo’s exhibition at David Zwirner’s 52 Walker Gallery was wonderfully full of references to Dali, Cady Noland, and Sylvie Fleury – poppy, violent, and surreal. The spotlights on the various scenarios highlighted the stage-like or crime-scene-like feel of everything teetering right on the edge. Jewellery, weapons, luxury that only barely kept its balance, poised on tall champagne glasses and mirrored shelves. It was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a really long time – and created by a young, local artist at that.

The two most fun parties I’ve attended here were both held at the top of the same abandoned skyscraper in the Financial District: one hosted by Office Magazine, the other by the Swiss Institute. On the last occasion I danced so much that my legs hurt for a full day afterwards. They played Crimewave by Crystal Castles and Deceptacon by Le Tigre. Apparently, the building has been empty since the financial crisis in 2008 and now has new owners. It’s going to be renovated, but before that happens it’s being used for parties and exhibitions.

One of the corner rooms is an exact replica of the luxury office it used to be in the early 1980s. Only now it has a record player and the air is thick with smoke because it’s been turned into a smoking room. Before, this was a place where photos were taken of men in suits trading stocks; now it’s full of young people getting flashed in the face by The Cobrasnake, their images shared online the next morning. There’s something very beautiful about how places can change function and how the transactions and interactions that take place in the architecture can change. From actual financial capital to social capital. The photocopier is still running at high speed, repeating the same images until the subject begins to change or disintegrate.

In New York, the best exhibitions are often found at the city’s many commercial galleries. For example, at the relatively newly established Ulrik in Chinatown, whose first exhibition at its new address featured German artist Matthias Groebel and paintings from the 1990s. Back then, Groebel built a kind of airbrush machine and created his works on primed canvases in a way reminiscent of printing. The early subjects are images from films shown on the single state-run television channel broadcast in East Germany, where he lived. Later, he began to use his own photographs, mixing them with text so that the end results look like memes or beautiful nostalgic album covers. They are so in tune with the zeitgeist that it’s easy to imagine Groebel being psychic, foreseeing how art and visual culture in general would look today.

Ulrik is currently showing an exhibition featuring NYC artist Bettina (Bettina Grossman, 1927–2021), who only exhibited once in her lifetime, but left behind a large quantity of works. From the 1970s up until her death, she lived at the Chelsea Hotel where she would sit by her window, watching the city like a spy. I love her photographs of passers-by and American flags seen as distorted reflections in the smooth skyscrapers. The exhibition is a serious introduction to an oeuvre I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of in the future.

Installation view, Judy Chicago, Herstory, New Museum, New York, 2023. Courtesy New Museum. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

In the Judy Chicago exhibit at the New Museum, I especially love the fourth floor where the artist has staged a presentation of works by artists who have influenced and shaped her. The combination works well: a lushly heavy, almost burlesque-like setting with furry floral carpets and works by artists such as Hilma af Klint, Djuna Barnes, and Meret Oppenheim. And it’s nice to get a break from some of Chicago’s rather flimsy and somewhat empty statements like, “Will there be violence in a society ruled by women?” After all, the answer is, as my Swedish artist friend replied, “Yes, of course!”

Although the visual collective memory of the West is still shaped by American popular culture, everything in New York feels quite vintage. The nostalgia hanging in the air confirms that in the future the dominant culture will come from elsewhere. Old Hollywood still haunts all the art spaces like a ghost. Personally, I love rummaging around in all the old stuff, but I’m also looking forward to getting a feel for the future. I realise that glimpses of the future can only be found by revisiting the old, but I also have a strong feeling that the future has been put on pause because we still need to complete all the things we moved away from too quickly. The Pop art that was never finished. Maybe it’s not just nostalgia, but rather a realisation that we’ve been too much in a hurry, too consumed by the idea of progress.

The atmosphere in New York is very different from when I was last here eight years ago. This time around, I quickly learned that if I wasn’t careful, I would end up in a room full of European artists and curators all galumphing around trying to pursue the same career. In that sense, the American dream still exists – at least the dream of exposure and success. The other day I went upstate and visited my friend who lives in a small house near the PepsiCo sculpture park. It was very like going for a walk in the park at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. The collection of sculptures was almost the same, only larger in scope. Pepsi wants to be Louisiana, and Europe’s youth still dream of American glamour.

Bettina, Phenomenological New York (detail), 1970s. Chromogentic print mounted on paper, 71.1 x 55.9 cm.