In the summer of 2020 two identical catamarans sat docked end-to-end in the port of Mahón, Menorca. Blown-up photos of sea creatures plastered along their sides advertised glass-bottom boat tours of the island’s giant natural harbour. I took Hanah (my daughter, then nearly three years old) on one of the tours. She was restless onboard as a distorted voice produced facts in five languages about certain landmarks along our route, including a few small, rocky islets floating in the port. Our boat stopped at the edge of the open sea and we were escorted below deck into one of two cramped viewing compartments, where haunted-looking fish materialized out of the green ether to snap at mud-coloured pellets flung discretely overboard by the crew.
This year the boats would remain, but with a slight change: One bears the logo of Hauser & Wirth, now that the international mega-gallery has just unveiled its latest settlement on one of those small, rocky islets. As we wait in line to board the gallery ferry and show the skipper our QR code, I glance at the other catamaran, still covered in tour decals, including a colourful map of the harbour. I orient myself on the map and locate our destination: a lumpen, gourd-shaped mass labelled “Illa del Rei.” Beneath that is a second parenthetical name that I do not remember seeing on the gallery website: “Bloody Island.”
Wikipedia tells me that Bloody Island, long home to an English naval hospital built in 1711, was nicknamed for the many young sailors who experienced violent agony there. Prior to the 13th century, it was called Illa dels Conills (Rabbit Island).
As we climb the steps to the upper deck I divert Hanah’s attention from a poster depicting ice cream bars sold onboard. An unnervingly tall and thin man, dressed in white linen with a pair of designer glasses fastened to his bald head, stands alone among the fibreglass benches. I guess that he is a minor art world celebrity from the UK—a museum director, maybe. As we shove off he is joined by his teenage daughter, her law school boyfriend, and his tiny wife draped in long silks, her face fixed in awkward sorrow, resembling that of a puffin. The daughter frowns at her phone while the boyfriend bravely attempts some lighthearted small talk with his prospective father-in-law. The man does not laugh or smile; he looms over his absurdly small family like an oversized Halloween decoration, gazing vacantly toward Bloody Island.
A few drunks jeer at us from a passing speedboat, shouting “enjoy the weather” in Spanish as they point their beer bottles toward the black rain clouds gathering behind them. But then—immediately, suspiciously— the clouds disperse, and the sky has completely cleared by the time we disembark.
Hauser & Wirth Menorca’s inaugural show is work by Los Angeles abstract artist Mark Bradford. The paintings are flurries of shredded comic books and spindly enamels layered over faint illustrations of maps that reveal themselves like afterimages in a Magic Eye picture. “I feel nothing,” my wife Laida says of the paintings. I mostly agree, yet there’s something slightly irresistible in the trick of their shallow, disorienting infinities. They remind me of those ice cream bars back on the boat, with their layers of chocolate and crunchy candy bits. I sympathize with any collector tempted to purchase one, though I wonder if, like the ice cream bars, they, too, might disappoint in their promise of unceasing fun and satisfaction.
I leave the gallery to walk the grounds of the old hospital, maintained as a separate museum by a volunteer historical society. Through its dirty windows I can see antique medical instruments, empty cots with bedpans, and a faux cadaver laid upon a stone examination table, its plastic legs poking out from under a white sheet.
On my phone I skim a New York Times article about the gallery’s inaugural ceremony last month. It mentions Hauser & Wirth’s unprecedented global expansion, represented by what husband-and-wife gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth refer to as “strategic locations”: their massive galleries in London, Hong Kong, New York, and Los Angeles, in addition to restaurants, hotels, and rustic “art destinations” such as this and others in the UK and Switzerland. The mayor of Menorca makes an appearance in the article, delicately acknowledging the gallery’s attractiveness to “upmarket visitors,” as well as the already noticeable squeeze on the island’s real estate market. The change in Mahón this summer has been plainly visible, as some other high end galleries and hotels have opened, and more greasy dives and souvenir shops have either re-branded or been replaced by sleek boutiques and vegan cafes.
I notice the words “ART IS TRASH,” painted on a row of buildings facing Illa del Rei from across the water. The dissent is slightly cheapened by the presence of a familiar cartoon horse, which I’ve also seen decorating shop windows in town—the calling card of a local artist. Near me sits an enormous luxury yacht parked in a private dock. I squint into its open cabin in the hope of spotting a famous face, but the room seems vacant. A curtain flaps in the breeze, and the boarding stairs, lit like movie theatre aisles with inlaid LEDs, disappear as they descend beneath the dark water.
I circle back through the sculpture garden to the gift shop where I spot a catalogue of work by the artist Mike Kelley. Kelley’s art was a particular influence on me when I was a grad student in Los Angeles, where it felt emblematic of a bygone West Coast sensibility: snarky, psychedelic pageantry hot-wiring the language and symbols of cults and corporations, summoning the primordial violence sublimated by good taste. A few years after his suicide in 2012, Hauser & Wirth began representing Kelley’s estate. Here among the handcrafted jewelry and vacation guides, his work seems part of some cynical joke with the punchline redacted. I flip the book open to a preface, penned by the Wirths. It begins: “Although we never had the opportunity to work with him directly during his lifetime, Mike Kelley was a kindred spirit whom we watched keenly from afar and with whom we shared a close affinity.”
It occurs to me that no collectors are among us. The paintings in the gallery have likely sold long before the opening, possibly over the internet. Those of us who paid the five euros to ride the ferry now wander the island like avatars in some opulent virtual fantasy, while our presence here makes this outlet store for the criminally wealthy appear more like a public museum. Under the quiet persuasion of tasteful lamps and charming Mediterranean decor, I dislike that like this place, yet succumb to a vague ensuing guilt-by-association which extends from this conflicted feeling and twists my criticism into self-criticism. I feel suddenly at odds with a dark and insidious power.
So I rejoin my family in the cantina, where we drink artisanal lemonade and watch the sunset. The lemonade is overpriced, but we agree it is delicious. Neither too sweet nor too sour.
Hanah’s favourite destination in town is “the train park,” a small fenced-in playground near the centre of Mahón, surrounded by a few sad cafés with patio seating. Soon it will be crawling with children, but for now it remains barren, scorching in the late afternoon sun. Hanah crouches in the dining car of a wooden play train, peering out occasionally in search of a friend. I take a table at a café called Que Hora Es? right up against the fence. I order vermouth on tap because it’s cheaper than beer and doesn’t come served in one of those biodegradable cups that wriggles in your hand like a water balloon. I order a tiny bowl of olives for Hanah.
“Good morning!” A matronly English ex-pat in a seafoam mumu waves to a pair of permafried surfer grandpas seated behind me. The men look like twins, side by side with their silver, shoulder-length hair and faded rock ’n’ roll concert tees. They all huddle around an oil-soaked basket of octopus tentacles. It is in fact evening, just after seven.
I scheme ways to make some money while I’m here; I could pitch something to Artforum about Hauser & Wirth. Not a review of course, but something loose, like a column—what the editors call “Diary.” It could be glib and deadpan, a touch subversive. I could make something of “bloody island” and “art is trash.” That’s $200, plus what I’ll make doing the online workshop with Laida next week. Enough to get by this month.
I check Artforum.com only to find that another writer has beaten me to the punch. What’s worse, the column embodies so many of the common stereotypes of mainstream art journalism, nearly to the point of parody. Co-opting press release drivel, untroubled by the status quo, unironically peppering the scene with phrases like “enlightened cosmopolitans” and “elegant souvenir shop.” I am angry and bitter; I feel exactly as if the $200 has been stolen from me.
I hear the sound of Hanah’s flip-flops across the rubber floor of the playground. She is running towards me with a look of grave worry and I prepare for some small trauma. Arriving breathless at the table, she plucks the last olive from the saucer of greyish liquid and begins orbiting its pit with a series of concentrated nibbles. When finished, she sighs contemplatively, and asks: “Daddy, does Peter Pan have a penis?” It is not an uninteresting question, I think.
Walking back along the shabby avenues, Hanah and I play “I see what I see”—her version of I Spy. She says, “I see what I see: something yellow.” Looking up, I find that everything visible is in fact yellow, cast in the golden glow of the sodium lamps above.
I feel embarrassed; I have no insights into ruthless multinational art conglomerates, or noble artist-run spaces shuttering in their wake. I should not project bitchy thoughts at other writers simply for accepting invitations to swanky soft openings. I’m no critic. I’m a displaced Californian stoner, adrift, nursing the wounds of an MFA while my family and I mooch off my poor mother-in-law, crowding her tiny apartment while we save on rent money for the summer.
Back at the house Laida and I chat with another local ex-pat, a middle-aged British hippy who runs a nature day camp for children nearby. She talks about her involvement in the construction of a geodesic dome before breaching the subject of the gallery. "Yes it's nice and everything," she says, “but who’s it for? And did you know it cost millions? Millions! Just to put on an art show. I’ve got friends, artists, who put on an art show just last week and it didn’t cost them a thing.”
That night, Laida reads Hanah The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown. In the story, a kitten sails to a tiny island and bullies a fish into revealing a secret: that the island is not really separate, but in fact invisibly bound to all earthly things. This revelation basically breaks his little kitty brain.
After five summers in Menorca, I finally bought myself a pair of prescription goggles. We spend our remaining mornings on the other side of the peninsula from Mahón and Bloody Island, on the nude beach at Sa Mesquida, where I’ve become addicted to searching for sea glass buried in the shallows. I float face down, a happy corpse, my naked ass surfacing like an islet. My wife and daughter are somewhat amused by the treasures I find, but with diminishing returns. Eventually they lose interest, drawn instead to a heroic looking dog who swims and dances over the small break. The most common sea glass is dark green or brown, around the size of a cat’s claw. Sometimes I find larger pieces in rarer shades of turquoise or lilac. I dive to the foot of a large crag dotted with sea urchins and uncover a translucent chunk of a mason jar, a shimmering crescent moon. I am completely seduced by these worthless crystals. Next summer I will buy a snorkel.