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Interview with Nadja Sayej of ArtStars*
by Ana Finel Honigman

Berlin, Sept. 2011 - For an industry whose only products have no objective use, function or value, the art-world takes itself pretty seriously. Thankfully Nadja Sayej, the creator and headliner of ArtStars* is here to sniff out bullshit, puncture pretension, deflate egos and delight lovers of lively criticism. ArtStars* is a vlog in the tradition of lost Gonzo-journalist public-access treasures such as Paul H-O and Walter Robinson in the Manhattan-based 1990s "GalleryBeat" public-access show.  Sayej pops up at openings and lures citizens of the local art-scene into revealing situations. Some play along generously (chapeau to Peaches), while others clam up, snap or bolt away. Sayej began shoving her microphone into artists’ faces in her native Toronto before taking her show on the road, finally landing in Berlin’s booming art-scene in 2010. There, Sayej reigns as the Robin Byrd/Ali G of the international art scene.

Yet Sayej’s puckish persona and brilliantly brazen style sugarcoat the seriousness of her endeavor. As the self-proclaimed “Queen of Sass,” the spitfire Canadian pundit spotlights her jaw-dropping personal charms with batty dress sense. But make no mistake, her balls are even bigger than her boobs. When she is not chasing Gilbert & George down Berlin’s streets or demonstrating the open-secret of Cyprien Gaillard’s sleaziness, she also writes polished and sophisticated culture reports for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times. As proof of the serious status she ascribes to criticism, Sayej runs practical workshops for aspiring arts writers, where she lectures about critics’ real concerns: earning an audience and also a living. Here, she exposes her value system and the value of her hardcore form of satirical criticism.

Nadja Sayej; Courtesy Haikal Noyes

Ana Finel Honigman: What makes an artist an "art star"?

Nadja Sayej: A creative professional with integrity. Someone who is frank, media-friendly without being an obnoxious attention whore – one who is unafraid of the camera, able to laugh at themselves, and not be pretentious. Someone willing to reveal something about themselves without the PR gloss; it’s that easy.

AFH: Do you think the social aspects of the art-world degrade or support artists?

NS: Only artists could degrade themselves. “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent,” as Eleanor Roosevelt once said.

AFH: Besides self-confidence, what qualities in a work or an artist do you take seriously?

NS: Substance over style – this is not a fashion show and the grey carpet at art fairs is not your runway, baby. I love practical, hard workers who also happen to be sharp pragmatists who call a spade a strawberry and look at life upside down with a dash of mysticism. Inspirational. Blunt. Adventurous. Great artists are people who don’t take themselves too seriously. People who expect the best, but have a plan just in case the worst shows up. In the art world, these people are rare gems, breaths of fresh air. Like Febreze.

(ArtStars* 55 - Gilbert & George)

AFH: What stinky aspects of the art-world do you find worthy of ridicule?

NS: ArtStars* is the new art criticism because I criticize everything in the art world except the art. That said, I don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. Everyone can speak for themselves.

AFH: So, do you primarily conceive of ArtStars* as criticism, journalism or your own form of creative performance?

NS: Sometimes, gallerists will come up to me in public and say, “I like your performance work.” I think it's funny people think I’m a performance artist. I’m just a reporter who is much more than just a reporter. I always give 110%. I realize that we do not live in an information age, but an entertainment age, and that I grab my viewers by the balls and drag them through the white box with me. That’s what makes me so successful – using entertainment in one of the most legendary boring, tedious markets the world has ever produced. Gonzo journalism forever.

(ArtStars* #57 - John Waters)

AFH: Do you think the overall contemporary art community has a healthy relationship to journalism, criticism and critics?

NS: It really depends who is sleeping with who. In general, people love art critics – from Hilton Kramer to Jerry Saltz; they’re all characters. We need those characters to skulk the scene with their intellectual prowess to say out loud what everyone else is afraid to say (for fear of losing sales; or their day job). I just happen to be one of them. Hear me loud and clear.

(ArtStars* #54 - Cyprien Gaillard)

AFH: How do you think your appearance and charisma influence your interviews?

NS: Nobody handed me a guide-book on how to be a web-TV star. I am just being myself.

AFH: Stripping away the hype and forgetting the cheap rents, is Berlin's art community different from the other cities you've covered?

NS: It’s certainly flakier, but also incredibly inspiring. It is larger, but just because you have more cows does not mean that makes for a better farm, just a bigger one. It was Berlin art critic Jeni Fulton who said that Berlin is the sweatshop of the art world. It’s true. This is the center of production of the art world, but far from where the sales fly. Party culture runs high, and people sleep in until noon – the artists are educated, with PhDs in vintage clothing with a minor in sleeping around. That said, I’ve connected with some real professionals here who are devoted to their craft. The level of hardcore is much higher, and you’ve got to play hardball once you set concrete foot on Tegel airport.

(ArtStars* #48 - Preview Berlin)

AFH: Do you think there is a viable future for art criticism or is it really dying discipline?

NS: The only person who kills art criticism is the critic who writes about their friends to prolong the afterparty. In other words, critics who are afraid of being critical are killing the medium. It isn’t really a discipline; it’s more of a hobby for curators, a part-time gig for academics, a financial experiment for artists and a grueling outlet for poets. I do believe art magazines are on the decline, and art blogs like ArtStars* on the up-and-up. I love cutting-edge art blogs, but it's jpeg porn and rarely do you find voice outside of style. Traditional art criticism is dead – few people still purchase publications, never mind quote contemporary critics outside classrooms. The discussion is all online in the skeletal beings of the comment army. Get in on the conversation and have your voice heard.

AFH: Who is the audience for ArtStars*?

NS: Art students absolutely love me, so do the PR people at museums, journalists, art critics, artists, collectors and art professors. Everyone is watching ArtStars* and now you can, too. We’re releasing a DVD of our first forty episodes, Vintage ArtStars* - the Toronto Years, 2009-2010, this fall in Toronto and Berlin respectively. For more information, please visit:


(ArtStars* #56 - Eva & Adele)

ArtSlant would like to thank Nadja Sayej for her assistance in making this interview possible.

--Ana Finel Honigman


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