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.
The group show “South by Southeast” is overwhelming—not just for its array of works from Serbia to Romania and Sri Lanka to Hong Kong but also for the intriguing multicultural dialogue on “southeasternness” that arises from pieces by twenty-nine artists. Curated by Patrick D. Flores and Anca Verona Mihulet, the exhibition seamlessly addresses sociopolitical issues past, present, and future.
Of the four videos displayed in black-box rooms, Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-Chung’s Wan Wansui (Long Long Live), 2012, and Thai artist Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Hangman, 2011-12, are both haunting for their allusions to the horrors of war and political struggle. The installations are also worthy: In Memandang Aalam, 2015, Indonesia’s Herra Pahlasari appropriates images of three woman from a painting by Seabad S. Sudjojono, displaying reproductions of their dresses. The concept of southeasternness is articulated most clearly in another installation, centering on the interactive website frombandungtoberlin.com, for which a collective of artists and researchers (Amanda Lee Koe, Brigitta Isabella, Chang Yuchen, Muhammad Al-Fayyadl, Renan Laru-an, and Tan Zi Hao) built “a shared immaterial platform to invent new passages in history.” The work culminates in questions printed on postcards: “What if the Berlin Wall had not fallen?,” “What if Southeast Asia had a different grouping?” “Would we inhabit a different world now?” In many ways, those worlds are explored throughout “South by Southeast.” Hong Kong has not been forgotten either, as the focus of the show and a world that is poised for change, given the recent political climate. Last year’s Umbrella Revolution is strongly referenced in a site-specific wall drawing featuring icons of umbrellas by Romania’s Dan Perjovschi.
“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.
You can almost feel a swish of wind in the gentle, at times almost imperceptible, grooves throughout Alwar Balasubramaniam’s fiberglass-and-acrylic piece Wind Waves, 2012. This, among other richly textured surfaces across the artist’s works here, serves as a testimony to the play of unseen natural forces around us.
The mixed-media work Filings in the Field, 2012, for instance, created by combining rust, chalk, glue, and acrylic on canvas, references how energy fields shape the material world. The circular arrangement of rusted material mimics magnetic field lines while also evoking memories of childhood physics experiments demonstrating the wondrous effects of magnets. Elsewhere, the dark-chocolate-colored In-conversation, 2014, resembles stratified rocks and makes us conscious of the gnawing nature of time. The artist’s refined sensibility also shines through in Here and There, 2015, for which he has drilled through the surface of a plywood gallery wall, bringing to light hidden recesses, sedimentary layers of acrylic, and accretions of memories.
Balasubramaniam transforms materials with ease, sculpting granite as if it were putty and sandstone as if it were a mere lump of dough to be kneaded and shaped at will. In Fragmented Conversation, 2015, he imbues plaster of paris with the feel of terra cotta, bringing with it echoes of ancient civilizations while the cast- aluminum Spill, 2013, is transformed by magic into a splash of silver-gray floating ethereally in midair. These works heighten the senses, so much so that I suddenly wonder if it wasn’t the effect of my breath on Dunes, 2012, that caused its chalky sands to shift ever so slightly.
Rigorously researched, this retrospective celebrating the late artist Genpei Akasegawa offers an unexpected breadth of material beyond his renowned works. A leading artist of the Japanese postwar avant-garde, Akasegawa was a founding member of both the Neo-Dadaism Organizers collective (in 1960) and the Fluxus-informed group Hi-Red Center (in 1963). His more than fifty-year career pursued a diverse array of artistic languages beyond the 1960s experimentation that brought him early success. As documented in the show, this includes his political cartoons in publications such as Sakura gaho (from 1970 to ’71), for which he gained a cultlike following, as well as his photographic works that explore the psychogeography of cities through focus on architecturally redundant structures. Additionally, the exhibition brings to light his designs for experimental theatre and dance (including his collaboration with butoh choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata among others) and his lifelong engagement with graphic design as a blurred zone between artistic practice and commerce.
Importantly, the show also chronicles Akasegawa’s development as a writer—an activity that earned him considerable mainstream success and several prestigious awards. This is perhaps where the exhibition excels. As the art audience learns of his activities as a cartoonist and a writer hitherto unknown to them, fans of his literary works discover his artworks that are lesser known among the general public. With this, the show achieves surprisingly popular appeal without compromising its art-historical integrity or the complexity of Akasegawa’s practice.
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.
“Imagine Brazil” evokes a country long construed (and misread) via the superficial perspectives of other nations. But scholar Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities as permanent social constructions is very relevant, too, as is anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s view of imagination as a “a key component of the new global order.” Featuring fourteen emerging artists, the show, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gunnar B. Kvaran, and Thierry Raspail, also includes works from more established names that have been chosen by each young artist as an attempt to contextualize their production in a historical perspective.
The conflict between public and private spaces is a pertinent topic throughout, and informs the first work viewers encounter: Berimbau Turnstile, 2014, by Rodrigo Matheus. Combining the berimbau (a Brazilian percussion instrument) with a turnstile, a common element in a country where space has always been constrained by private interests, the piece appears alongside four other works by Matheus, most of whose materials reference construction and architecture. But the work that best captures the spirit of the exhibition is Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, a Class Sentiment, 2012. The text-and-image installation is reminiscent of the mosaic tiling found in a tropical modernist house. Its writing seems to be some sort of manifesto, but is ultimately almost unreadable; in place of the sentences’ key words are thick geometric fiberglass shapes affixed to the wall. Addressing notions of memory and gaps in history that compromise an understanding of the present, de Andrade’s work—via hidden words and interrupted discourse—also suggests an interesting association between images and the imaginary.