Kaya III: Luck and Body Bags at 47 Canal


“Do you feel more like you’re in a clown’s basement or an S&M dungeon?” This was how Kerstin Brätsch greeted us at a preview of her third “Kaya” show with Debo Eilers at 47 Canal, which opened last night. Walking through the space the day before was eerie. Five huge structures, each resembling something between a torture device and an oversize tribal mask, hung from the ceiling and walls. When asked how the series got its start, Brätsch’s eyes and smile got very wide as she turned to ask Eilers: “Don’t you remember?”

Eilers grinned, “We already forgot.”

Some details have survived. Kaya first opened in 2010 at 179 Canal, a noncommercial art space owned by Margaret Lee that she has since left for her new one on 47 Canal Street, which she runs with Oliver Newton. “The landlord had given it to Margaret for free, but then right before the show, he wanted rent money,” Eilers remembered. “We decided to do something to raise money for her and basically turned Margaret into a dealer.” And so they staged, as part of the show’s opening-night performance, an auction of their own painting and sculpture with one ground rule: no dealers, no advisers, and no proxies allowed. A gallery opening without dealers might not generate much cash, but it will create buzz.

So will a 13-year-old muse—and the artists had one of those, too. Kaya, the daughter of one of Eilers’s closest childhood friends, was visiting New York with her mother just before she turned 14 when he asked her to participate in the show and lend it her name. “The whole time he didn’t tell me what I was gonna do. And then I got there and he was like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re gonna do,'” she laughs. At that “Kaya” and at “KAYA 2” (which took place at Various Small Fires in L.A. last year), Kaya became the centerpiece of Brätsch and Eilers’s performances, playing the guitar, painting a plaster mold of Eilers’s body, and altering his sculptures at whim.

With the first two finished (and, according to Brätsch, a fourth installment already in the works), “Kaya III” opened with some updates to the format. The works on display are their most collaborative yet. “I think we really, for the first time, created a third,” Brätsch explained, referring to the creative merger. “Before we’ve always been addressing exactly that space, and now that space has materialized.” Perhaps naturally, the work is also more difficult to classify. “We wanted something that wasn’t painting or sculpture,” Brätsch offered next to the structures they’d made of plastic, leather and paint. “We wanted something in between,” she clarified. She calls them body bags.

Brätsch and Eilers didn’t perform on the opening night. Their friend Daniel Chew took over, intermittently lip-syncing to Yeezus in Chinese opera drag from different corners of the room. Brätsch mingled her way through the space all night in photo-print McQueen and Versace workout wear; Eilers wore the same gray shirt as the day before and kept quiet.

Artworks weren’t auctioned as before, either. They were gambled for. For 20 dollars, guests could buy into a game of dice with custom-made coins from the oldest operational mint in France. The partygoer with the most coins to his or her name at the end of the night got to pick any one of the five works on show to take home when the exhibition closes on August 4. Kaya kept score on a series of tall, shattered mirrors.

Everyone clapped for the lucky winner who claimed the purplish piece that hung by the stairs. “For 90 bucks and some fucking good luck,” Lee announced to the room. “Oh, and all the money from tonight is going into Kaya’s college fund,” she tacked on. That prompted another, much louder round of applause.