Sunday, April 6, 2008

Eduardo Sarabia's Bar Aleman at the Whitney Biennial

Photographs by Lauren K.

With Nicolas Bourriaud's notion of "relational aesthetics" now being embraced by curators at major museums thirteen years after its formulation, it was perhaps inevitable that visitors to the 2008 Whitney Biennial would be greeted with quite a few social events presented as art: among them, an interactive music performance (Lucky Dragons), an artist-curated dinner party (Rita Ackermann & Agathe Snow), a slumber party (DJ Olive), and a series of dance marathons (Agathe Snow, again).

Among these, though, none was probably more warmly received - and rightfully so - than Eduardo Sarabia's drinking establishment Bar Aleman. For a series of three nights Sarbaia served his homemade tequilas (available in three varieties) atop his ceramic and rosewood bar at the Park Avenue Armory. The night I was there (March 14, the final evening), my friends and I were served the delicious, smooth tequila by his friends, while he provided jams from a set of turntables. People were (pleasantly) packed into one of the main floor rooms, dancing as gigantic stuffed moose and oil portraits of long-passed general stared down on us.

There's not necessarily anything radically new here; contemporary artists have, of course, been playing the role of restauranteur and club promoter for some time now. Three examples: Gordon Matta-Clark running the pioneering SoHo establishment Food in the early 70's, Damien Hirst providing the decor and conceptual underpinnings for London's Pharmacy in the late 90's, Rirkrit Tiravanija opening a Thai food stand in New York's 303 Gallery in 1996. Matta-Clark and Hirst were establishing legitimate businesses (even if it's doubtful that Food ever pulled much of a profit), while Tiravanija was aiming for the opening of some sort of utopian framework for interaction within the gallery.

Sarabia's twist on the game is a lot more fun: three nights, some extra money via the Art Production Fund for full liquor licenses, and a massive sound system. It might be an allegory for the post-millennial art market (Though Sarabia claims his pure tequila leaves no hangover! No comment on that.) or a commentary on first-third world relations filtered through a meditation on agave production (as the Whitney's curators would somewhat bizarrely prefer you have it), but at its core it seems like an attempt to subvert the museum's standard operation, if only for a few moments. In place of the institution's bourgeois obsession with conservation, one experiences unrestrained expenditure, a give away (destruction) not unlike the potlatch ritual.

Art costs money, and Sarabia - to everyone's obvious delight - chooses to burn both in the service of a party. In one sense, it's an immense celebration of a change in status (a common occasion for the potlatch): he's made it into the Biennial. But Georges Bataille has noted that the potlatch is not purely celebratory: it also contains an inherent provocation, "... constituted by a considerable gift of riches, offered openly and with the goal of humiliating, defying, and obligating a rival." In other words, Bar Aleman, proffering endless glasses of tequila and blasting dance music, positions itself apart from Tiravanija's (and the Whitney's) purported desire for democratic discourse. In its place, it posits two things better-aligned with the moment: pure revelry and a bold challenge.