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Graeme Williams

University of Witwatersrand
October 8–November 1

Cecil Road, Rosebank
August 1–August 22

166 Bulwer Road, Glenwood, Kwazulu Natal
September 8–September 27

Graeme Williams, untitled, 2013.

Johannesburg, a city founded on a gold rush in 1886, has prompted a great deal of handwringing amongst writers about its place in the world, and indeed Africa, since the fall of apartheid. By contrast, photographers, especially city residents like Graeme Williams, have been less grandiloquent, accepting its roughshod visual character and unstable temperament as a kind of truth. His earlier black-and-white work combined the feral tradition of Gary Winogrand’s street photography with the more impressionistic urban documentary of David Goldblatt, also a Johannesburg resident and Williams’s mentor, but “A City Refracted” his Ernest Cole Award-winning exhibition, sees this former news photographer confidently chart his own direction, by wedding documentary purpose to a formal style that favors experiment and elision.

“The images are not so much about journalistic content as they are part of an accumulative feeling or sense of the area,” Williams once said in an interview. To this end, his color photos are uncaptioned and possess an amateur, snapshot-like quality, a strategy meant to register his increasing unfamiliarity with his subject, as Johannesburg dismantles its hard apartheid borders. Functionally, his naďve compositional style delivers lots of blur. Pedestrians, a repeat subject, are often swallowed by shadow. Two women in pink bathing costumes are framed without heads. If this formal experimentation is an easily exhaustible strategy, Williams manages to ally it with a clear sense of purpose: of turning his fear (he uses bodyguards while photographing) into a kind of wonder at his hometown’s shop-worn beauty.

Sean O'Toole

“The Civil Power”

9 Jiuxianqiao North Road
June 25, 2015–October 10, 2015

Lin Tianmiao, Wrapped diffusion, 1995, mixed media, dimensions variable.

“The Civil Power” raises a significant question for Chinese contemporary art: Whose power is civil? The outsider—in opposition to “official art”—is one standard answer. By featuring everything from Wang Keping’s Silence, 1978, the most politically subversive work from the “Xing Xing Huazhan” (Star Exhibition), a seminal show famously came to be shut down by the government, to art fostered by the avant-garde and utopian Zang Ku , a new media center founded in 2001, the exhibition shows great ambition—with inconstant results—in its efforts to examine Chinese contemporary art chronologically from the 1970s onward.

In the 1980s and ‘90s—when the notion of “official art” preoccupied cultural consciousness—art created with a bottom-up approach offered needed counternarratives: Early, spontaneous art organizations, like the Star Group, hinted at underlying political stances, and derived significance from specific historical contexts. The exhibition’s juxtaposition of Silence and the Star Group’s archives fails to illustrate—to an audience of people who did not experience that history—how works of art would have become “events” during this time of political turbulence.

In the early 1990s, the culture’s collective imagery, and the concept of “readymade,” became frequent references for elite artists. Missing are reminders that, with such strategies, artists essentially pushed themselves to create “civil” art of sorts. The relationship between contemporary art and the civil needs redefinition, as rapid urbanization results in regional fracture and class differentiation. However, displaying the works by Ou Ning, Cao Fei, Huang Sunquan, and Ju Anqi without any explanation of their significance is akin to presenting anthropological fieldwork documents, not an art exhibition.

Translated from Chinese by Qianxi Liu.

Xu Danyu

“After Utopia: Revisiting the Ideal in Asian Contemporary Art”

71 Bras Basah Road
May 1–October 18

Shen Shaomin, Summit, 2009, silica gel simulation, acrylic, fabric, dimensions variable.

All around Singapore this summer, signs announce the fiftieth anniversary of the city-state’s independence and, implicitly, celebrate the accomplishments of a financial center known for continually reconstructing itself. Inside the Singapore Art Museum, however, a wry note is struck by this exhibition, which features work that questions idealized states—physical, political, and emotional.

Though the show overtly tackles utopia through ideas of Eden, the city, legacy, and issues surrounding the self, a powerful theme of air, and a lack thereof, is present throughout. Shannon Lee Castleman’s Jurong West Street 81, 2008, gathers films of neighbors by residents of a dense Singaporean block. While all of the subjects are complicit and often bemused, the sheer proximity of the neighbors to each other lends a sense of claustrophobia, and the video itself is a reminder of how easy it is to be watched. Lack of air is conveyed in multiple ways by Made Wianta’s Air Pollution, 2014, a dense sculptural tangle of motorcycle exhaust pipes, and is made visceral in Shen Shaomin’s haunting Summit, 2009, in which a faintly breathing life-size model of Fidel Castro rests on his deathbed next to a peer-group of embalmed Communist leaders who aimed to symbolically preserve a legacy through their own remains. Air’s invisible weight is felt in Svay Sareth’s emotive film installation Mon Boulet, 2011, in which the artist drags a six-and-a-half-foot-wide metal ball like a rickshaw from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in memorial of Cambodians affected by the Khmer Rouge. Sareth, who grew up in refugee camps, is one of many for whom the invisible weight of civil war is tangible, in the very environment. The best works in the exhibition are a powerful prompt that what we can’t see is often more affecting than what’s apparent.

Lilly Lampe

Claudia Andujar

Rua Marquęs de Săo Vicente, 476, Gávea
July 25–November 15

Claudia Andujar, “Família mineira (Minas Gerais family),” 1964, gelatin silver print, 7 x 9 1/2".

I still feel as if there is a knifepoint underneath my eyelid: Such is the somatic staying power of Claudia Andujar’s 1967 photographs of “psychic surgeon” Zé Arigó, who performed his “miracles” with cutlery on that most delicate of facial features. It’s this power to compel the body of the viewer that has been Andujar’s trademark throughout the past half century of her work, the origins of which are under retrospective here. The show leads up until the early 70s, when she became renowned for dancerly depictions of the Yanomami tribes of northern Brazil. Their absence in this show, titled “no lugar do outro” (“in the place of the other”), makes way for generous attention to the photographs in which their techniques were developed, as her documentary and more experimental styles moved toward a union.

On display are early portraits that could nearly be mistaken for the work of Mary Ellen Mark, such as the series “Família mineira (Minas Gerais family),” 1964, one of which depicts a girl in profile staring into space. You might say that she’s resigned, or bored and dreaming, or else angry; as in Mark’s practice, the ambiguity reflects respect for the opaque within the intimate. Andujar’s oeuvre retains this quality throughout the psychedelic decade, even as her subjects sometimes turn to waterfalls and darkly glowing seaweed. But it’s in the garish filters and vertiginous perspectives of her coverage of the drug trade and the therapeutic practice known as psychodrama that her forms and subject matter fully intersect, as in Reportagem sobre psicodrama feita para a revista Realidade (Report on psychodrama for Reality Magazine), circa 1969. There she would perfect a flexible distortion that recalls what Zola wrote of Pissarro: “hallucinogenic truth.”

Abraham Adams