The history of painterly abstraction in South Africa remains atomized and fragmentary in part because of lingering animosities about its bland rehearsal of an imported style and, decisively perhaps, its inability to visualize the struggle against apartheid, which prompted curators and publishers to bypass the abstract in favor of social-realist and agitprop work. This exhibition, rather than recapitulating history, offers a selective survey of this overlooked genre and draws predominantly from the holdings of the New Church Museum. Guest curator Marilyn Martin named this show after a billowing black-and-white composition, Thinking, Feeling, Head, Heart, ca. 1976 by Kevin Atkinson, a former teacher of Marlene Dumas. It hangs in a room adjacent to the entrance and next to the show’s oldest work, an atypical jumble of black calligraphic marks titled Abstract on White and Blue from 1957 by Walter Battiss.
Martin eschews chronology in favor of juxtaposing works by first- and second-wave abstract painters with recent works by contemporary artists. Sometimes this strategy yields insightful results, as in the pairing of two untitled Ernest Mancoba drawings, dated c. 1970s and 1993 respectively, with a paper sculpture sutured with ribbons and rubber tubes by Nicholas Hlobo titled Andilibali Okwendlovu, 2008. The curatorial conceit is resisted, though, by works such as Dineo Seshee Bopape’s installation Uncontested Metaphor, 2013, an asymmetrical piece of fabric accompanied by a work on paper and a length of rope that is essentially modular in form. Along with Gerda Scheepers’s Medium and Modality Piece [Speak Easy], 2013, a uniformly blue canvas with fabric embellishments featuring rudimentary marks and displayed as a sculpture, these two cryptic and magnetic works are the unexpected highlights, as both artists have produced singular works that refuse company or comparison.
Liu Wei translates his environment into simple yet concise forms by using the most precise materials to make his point. On entering, visitors have to navigate through the engulfing Enigma (all works 2014), a constellation of towering geometric forms covered in folded military or transportation canvases. As visitors find their way to the spherical shapes at its center, a giant screen of fluctuating colors, titled Shapeshifting, plays off of the digitally planned landscape paintings executed in oil vertically and horizontally lining the walls.
The artist’s discerning choice of materials and configurations allows for a straightforward understanding of his intentions. In Love It, Bite It No.3, displayed in the lobby, unidentified specimens of Western architecture made of ox hide are collapsed on the ground as an embodiment of the fragility of dominant ideology and power, while Look! Books features printed materials carved and compressed into random shapes that undermine the difference between looking and reading. For the work Puzzle, mirrors are scattered throughout the center of the main hall at slanted angles, which conjures a world reflected and deflected.
The monumentality of each work emphasizes an environment’s ubiquity and dominance in individuals’ experiences. Regardless of whether we consider Liu Wei’s pieces abstractions, the space for imagination that the artist allows in his perfect translations of reality to formally appealing works of art outweighs the classifications of genre.
Walking into the new Pearl Lam Galleries SOHO space, it’s unclear whether Beijing-based artist Ren Ri is simply an eccentric beekeeper or an artist with an inclination for ethological cultivation. The artist, who claims to spend most of his waking hours with bees, blurs that distinction to play with the genesis of order and chaos. Shown for the first time in Hong Kong, “Yuansu I: The Origin of Geometry,” 2007–2011, and “Yuansu II,” 2013–15, christen this pristine gallery space.
On the second floor, juxtaposed with peeling tong lau walk-up buildings seen through the windows, are topographical maps solidified in beeswax from “Yuansu I.” The best works are on the first floor, however, accompanied by a screening of the video Yuansu III+2, 2015, which shows bees climbing all over the artist’s body. Reminiscent of the Perspex boxes containing dried Chinese medicines popular in shops along Queen’s Road West, Ren Ri’s “Yuansu II” series of translucent boxes contain inactive beehives supported with struts. For these, the artist played with chance by placing a queen bee in each box and carefully manipulating the formation of the beehives. Every seven days, he randomly moved each box on its side or on another angle, altering the way the worker bees built their home around the queen. The results are abstract honeycombs, each hexagonal cell molded from surprise. More than just an ethological experiment, then, Ren Ri’s work questions the extent of an artist’s role in creation.
“Days push off into nights,” a group exhibition curated by Christina Li featuring nine international artists, presents contemplations of time’s passage that are intimate, funny, and grand. The eleven works on view, which range from installation to photography to performance, coalesce in Spring’s uniquely laid out, converted industrial space.
In the installation Sunset, sunrise, 2011, by Magdalen Wong, a row of windows in the gallery is slowly obscured by rolls of metallic gold tape as gravity unwinds them over the course of each day. Nearby, Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers, 2011, is a set of twenty-five photographs that capture individuals writing on their underground commute, which the New York–based Canadian artist folded into envelopes and sent to friends around the world.
Excerpts of five films from Olga Chernysheva’s series “Screens,” 2014, depict mundane yet whimsical scenes of life in Russia: A train travels by a snowy platform; a man does push-ups in his yard; the artist’s mother and father roll dough to make dumplings. The latter recounts a visit the Moscow-based artist made to her parents, during which she discovered a singing postcard hidden deep inside a cupboard. It played an old Soviet tune, “Victory Day,” and had been sent “from Putin to Papa” to commemorate May 9, 1945. “It will run out of juice and stop playing one day, won’t it?” the artist’s mother asks hopefully. Chernysheva’s vignettes, Davey’s pictures, and the other nine works on display represent routines followed, hours unfurled, seasons changed, and the endless opportunities for wonder in the everyday.
This retrospective brings together over ninety works created by Mrinalini Mukherjee in hemp, ceramics, and bronze over the past four decades. Curated by Peter Nagy, it comes on the heels of her untimely demise on February 2, shortly after the show opened.
Mukherjee forged for herself a distinctive artistic vocabulary, and her “goddesses,” for which she is well known, are literally tied up in knots. Fashioned out of twisted hemp rope, these totemic creatures appear grotesque yet magnificent, powerful yet benign. Similarly, her fiber pieces Pakshi, 1985; Devi, 1982; and Vanshree, 1994, are reminiscent of yakshas, or nature spirits, depicted in Asian temple sculptures. Drawing on the organic, her forms evoke associations of lush herbage and dark, verdant forests, of a landscape that is both fruitful and fertile. These are reinforced by the sexual references of her phallic forms and the mysterious recesses and orifices in her sculptures.. Voluptuous and sprouting genitalia, her celestial beings are clearly on an overdose of hormones.
For the past two decades, Mukherjee ventured to use other materials for her biomorphic forms—first ceramics and then bronzes. Fusing the macabre and the ornamental, Earthbloom, 1996, presents a hacked torso with blossoming breasts. Her recent bronze works, cast from wax and plants, offer creatures that oscillate between the plant and animal kingdom. Palmscape IX, 2015, for example, resembles a date palm petrified in molten metal and offers a bursting efflorescence.
Though this clean, green metropolis is one of the world’s most orderly and secure, Singapore is also known for its draconian fines, corporal punishment, and controversial human rights record. There’s no small measure of irony, then, in Gilbert & George’s choice of Singapore as the site of their first solo show in Southeast Asia.
The twenty-six new photomontages collate text and imagery that the artists discovered on daily walks around their East London neighborhood. The pictures are rendered in black, white, and vivid primary colors. The figures of Gilbert & George appear in the works: often masked, in matching suits, presiding over turbulent images designed (in their words) to provoke bigots and liberals alike.
The works’ repeated signs or slogans range from seemingly straightforward (“No Ball Games”) to philosophical (“Life After Death Proved”) to defiant (“Fight Back!” “Fuck Homophobia!”). Each piece contributes to a mocking, mischievous portrayal of contemporary Britain as a nanny state, as well as a call to rebel against authoritarian and nationalistic culture. Combinations of the phrase “CCTV in Operation” recur throughout, as do warnings about urinating in public, to which the artists answer in one picture, via added text: “Piss Off!”
Their art’s energy derives from a mixture of schoolboy effusion and intelligent subversion. Their message, and its resonance in Singapore, may have slipped past the censors, but it’s not meant to be missed. At the exhibition’s entrance is a cheeky dedication, in black and red on a plain white wall: “With Utopian Love, from Gilbert & George xx xx.”
For her first Korean exhibition in five years, Haegue Yang chose a title inspired by George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” and Romain Gary’s novel The Roots of Heaven (1958), which both feature elephants as a metaphor for nature’s dignity and its relation to human civilization. Yang’s recent concerns about the tension between them unfold collectively in her latest series, “The Intermediates.”
On view are three architectural structures, modeled after an ancient Mayan pyramid, Borobudur Temple in Indonesia, and Lala Tulpan (a Russian Islamic mosque), respectively—all handcrafted with straw, the artist’s newest material of choice. Employed by virtually every culture, straw, for Yang, evokes the universal. To produce the works, she sought out a straw-weaving teacher and learned traditional macramé techniques—while also studying the history of the material. And while evidence of time-consuming labor adds to the monuments’ sense of authenticity, the fact that the straw Yang used is actually made from artificial fibers calls into question the relevance of the dichotomies—between the genuine and the synthetic, the ancient and the modern—that “The Intermediates” seems to pose.
Cittadella, composed of 186 Venetian blinds plus moving spotlights and scent emitters (all signature materials in Yang’s oeuvre) further questions conventional oppositions. Certainly, the window covers literally blind one to their other sides, but a slight adjustment of the slats renders the divisions porous. Attempts to construct consistent narratives out of the folkloric origins of “The Intermediates” and the industrial devices of Cittadella will be frustrated. In fact, Yang favors frustration over complacency.
Singaporean artist and writer Heman Chong’s show “Never, a Dull Moment” examines communication and the process of putting together an exhibition. Chong, who trained as a graphic designer, often employs text in his practice. This particular body of work features more words than images, across painting, installation, performance, readymade sculpture, digital prints on cloth, and a short story that doubles as the press release.
A number of the works here are the result of instructions from the artist to the hosting institution. Smoke Gets In (Your Eyes), 2015, for instance, provides an area where visitors are permitted to smoke cigarettes within the galleries. Elsewhere, Boiling Point, 2015, a table of hot plates bearing pots of boiling water, is placed near paintings from the series “Things That Remain Unwritten,” 2013–, in an intentional, precarious installation choice. Throughout, there is a sense of humor and wit in these interventions. For Within, You Remain, 2015, Chong requested that custodial staff refrain from clearing the floor of debris accumulated both during the removal of the gallery’s previous show and the run of his, creating a piece that continues to change each time someone walks through the room. Leftover Triangle (with Two Shelves) from “A Room of His Own: Masculinities in Korea and the Middle East” is an architectural remnant from the last exhibition here, while Past, Lives, both 2015, is a poster that lists the eighty-nine exhibitions previously mounted in this space. Together, these works form a sort of archeology of the exhibition medium, illuminating institutional history. There is an element of institutional critique at play, but ironically many of the works function because the institution is amenable to every challenge Chong places before it.