The earliest photo in David Goldblatt’s career-spanning survey, “The Pursuit of Values,” is a black-and-white portrait of a white middle-aged couple seated on a park bench, smoking. Couple in the Library Gardens, Johannesburg, 1948, was taken the same year that Afrikaner nationalists won the parliamentary ballot in a whites-only South African election and inaugurated a cynical program of legislated racial division. The most recent photo here is also a study in black and white and has a lengthy descriptive title. Taken on April 9 this year, it shows a mixed-race group of students at the University of Cape Town celebrating, as much as witnessing with their smartphones, the removal of sculptor Marion Walgate’s 1934 bronze sculpture of oligarch and philanthropist Cecil John Rhodes. Their victorious campaign, inspired by the activism of Black Lives Matter, has since spawned a national student movement demanding free education and political action around lingering inequalities.
Inertia and change are the key themes in this exhibition. The display is composed of an outer ring of photographs chiefly depicting architectural scenes from Goldblatt’s open-ended essays “The Structure of Things Then,” 1964–93, and “Structures of Democracy,” 1999–ongoing. This hard edge surrounds a nucleus of portrait-focused essays from the 1940s through 1990s, the nadir of white rule in this country. The essay “Transkei,” 1975, a postcard-scale series on rural customs and poverty, is a highlight. “Apartheid is dead but its half-life cannot be wished away,” writes the photographer in a wall text accompanying “The Transported of KwaNdebele,” 1983–84, a series describing the hardships of ordinary black South Africans commuting to and from white-majority cities. A lone color photo from 2012 testifies to the endurance of this predicament.
Liu Chuang’s recent interest in object-oriented ontology is illustrated best by What Is a Screen?, 2015. Dominating the Magician Space entrance, the work is a more than six-foot-wide square void in a wall filled with iron window bars fashioned into patterns found on medieval textiles and metalwork. Both the space and the iron bars are illuminated, casting shadows on a billowing, faintly printed cloth. Along with the video work BBR1 (No.1 of Blossom Bud Restrainer, No. 2), 2015—which features content culled from the Internet, such as viral footage captured by mobile phones—What Is a Screen? extends the life of things into virtual spheres. Liu’s works dialogue through material associations; for example, Untitled, 2015, with its LED lights emitting from upside-down suspended “ancient” porcelain vessels, resonates with the projected light in What Is a Screen?
If much has been made of speculative realism and object-oriented ontology in recent art discourse, this exhibition dives into the fray. Liu’s various material juxtapositions collapse hierarchies and invite a new rationale where traditionally eminent artist’s materials, such as porcelain, share formal characteristics with iron bars. The objects in this show seem to further undergo an egalitarian flattening as they appear on Liu’s various screens. This focus on materiality can also be retrofitted to interpretations of earlier works. In this sense, “Live Remnants” could be seen as a conclusion to Liu’s previous work while also being the first sentence of a next chapter.
The group exhibition “A Luxury We Cannot Afford” provides a rare survey of art inspired by Singapore. The title is a quote from a 1968 speech by former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, speaking about the role of arts in the then-fledging nation.
While framed as an essay on Singapore’s ideology of a capitalist democracy, the exhibition does more than just reflect on the island’s economically driven politics. Honing in on the political project of culture, the exhibition includes YouTube videos such as National Night, 2012, a Mentos commercial that parodies Singapore’s campaign to encourage a “procreative” citizenry; FOCAS, a defunct journal on contemporary art; Lim Mue Hue’s modernist painting of a Chinese female smoking; and Ho Rui An’s Screen Green, 2015, a commissioned lecture-performance inspired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2014 National Day rally speech that saw him speaking against a green screen. Ho’s work explores the penchant for green botanical backgrounds that Singapore’s politicians favor when addressing the people, and the use of the cinematic green screen as a functional site to be filled with speculative representations of the future.
The significance of an independent art space charting a historical trajectory for the political project driving much of the art on view suggests a question: Why is this exhibition not in Singapore? The question resounds in Cheong Kah Kit’s interventional series, “gently,” 2015: Three mats, emulating tiled floors in the Singapore Art Museum, transpose a state-sponsored cultural space onto the physical ground of the exhibition.
Yet, the exhibition leverages, precisely, its position outside of Singapore to bring together an exceptional selection of material and to redirect the banal narrative of Singapore's authoritarian censorship toward a productive analysis of practice in light of a state’s neoliberal push. “A Luxury We Cannot Afford” is exemplary of what a delocalized context for exhibition-making can in fact afford.
One of India’s pioneering performance artists and conceptualists, Rummana Hussain is known for her bold explorations of female subjectivity trapped in discourses of family, religion, nationalism, and welfare.
An artist provoked into activism by the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya at the hands of fundamentalist Hindus and the ensuing riots across India, Hussain (whose life was brutally cut short by cancer in 1999) is noted for her seemingly sharp departure from her figural, painterly works of the 1980s to her abstract, highly sensuous installations and performances of the ’90s, for which she is celebrated. “Breaking Skin” maps the transition between these two disparate sets by presenting works from the early ’90s that constitute the artist’s earliest experiments with abstract forms and unconventional or mixed media. On display are works such as Love over Reason and Yoni, both 1993—made with charcoal, indigo and colored earth on paper—where evocations of the female body merge seamlessly with visions of scarred landscapes, alluding to battles fought on and over that body and mirroring the violent intrusion of history into the realm of the personal, the intimate, and the sexual.
The violent rise of divisive politics is conjured starkly in Tower of Babel, 1993, in which printed images of the Hindu goddess Durga bounce across a board, at one point breaking out of an architectural grid. Shards of a pot arranged in one corner mark the destruction left by the goddess’s relentless march, summoning visions not only of the Babri mosque but also of a nation in ruins.
Art institutions across Japan, in observing the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, have started to allow artists more freedom to explore this extremely sensitive topic. With its sympathetic depiction of a fictional war-artist protagonist based on Leonard Foujita, Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s series “The Return of Painter F,” 2015, strongly makes the point that war changed the country’s artists. These men—as could be said of many Japanese returnees—found it difficult to come back to Japan after the war because they no longer felt “Japanese” enough. As Ozawa writes in Chapter 7, one of his paintings depicting the eponymous painter, “Two artists came [back] to Japan,” but then in the final Chapter 8, “One has run away. He started a life . . . in the new place.”
Meanwhile, in the background of Japan’s war narrative is the effect of the country’s colonization policies on another Asian nation: Indonesia. One work in “Painter F” specifically references the Keimin Bunka Shidosho, a real painting school established in Jakarta in 1943 that was aimed at “pacifying the local population” and asserting the cultural superiority of their colonizers. Ozawa himself commissioned several Indonesian artisans and musicians to produce his works. One highlight of the exhibition, for instance, is a video with the guttural tones of the metal singer Senyawa performing Ozawa’s lyrics for “The Return of Painter F” alongside a traditional Indonesian gambus. By recreating a relationship that left local artists disempowered relative to their Japanese counterparts, spurred by Japan’s World War II–era occupation of Indonesia, Ozawa reminds viewers of what has yet to change, even seventy years on.
Smack in the middle of the Beirut Exhibition Center sits Ranya Sarakbi’s Pendulum No 11., 2015. It is at once threatening—as though it may teeter—and serene, for its frozen, flawless precision. This is Sarakbi’s intention: to throw several dichotomies at the viewer. It’s a version of her Lebanon after all: certain and uncertain, historic and modern, Eastern and Western. That is also this group show’s curatorial premise: how land isn’t a geography but rather a “mythology,” as the exhibition’s curator Joanna Chevalier has put it. The show is for citizens of Lebanon who have left the motherland but know all too well how some things—be they traditional, habitual, emotional, or memorial—stay inextricably linked to home. The loaned and commissioned works by the seventeen artists here tell of feelings for Lebanon. Inadvertently, they all come off as nostalgic self-portraits. The galleries become a tomb of memories and a vault of dormant, suppressed emotions. Thankfully, the works have been hung with ample breathing space.
Mona Hatoum’s complex relationship with Lebanon is reflected in her suspended, impassable, painful block of stretched barbed wire in Impenetrable (S Version), 2010; Etel Adnan re-creates her Beirut studio, which she yearns to return to; Nabil Nahas paints portraits of wise, solemn tree trunks (flora as documents of Lebanon’s tormented history). Finally, beware of Najla El-Zein’s grandmother: Her aura looms in a gallery through a glamorous shawl made of toothpicks. In fact, take heed of all the emotions packed in this show. Some sting, others are warm-hearted, but all in all, there’s no place like home.
One of Brazil’s most expressive contemporary artists, Adriana Varejão makes artwork at once provocative and visceral, appropriating and uniquely processing an arsenal of subjects ranging from her country’s colonial past to the history of artistic practices in the West and China. She comments on the formation of Brazilian culture and identity as well as her own. “Pele do Tempo” surveys her thirty-year career via thirty-two works curated by Luisa Duarte.
Of the show’s three adjoining spaces, one holds a selection of unprecedented references: illustrated books on the history of surgery and the art of Caravaggio, for example; a Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro ceramic plate and Portuguese tiles; a Lucio Fontana painting and a video installation by Varejão (with tiles, prints, and architectural photographs shot by the artist). The second space juxtaposes phantasmagorically majestic paintings and drawings from her “Saunas and Baths,” 2001–, and “Jerked-beef Ruins,” 2000–, series (exposed, fleshy, bulbous guts sandwiched between hand-painted geometric tile grids), as well as the sensuality of four large wall-mounted decorated plates. In the third space, artworks from the series “Terra Incognita,” 1990–, echo Song dynasty landscapes, and references to cartography and Portuguese Baroque architecture and tiles feed into the “Seas and Tiles,” 1990–, series. In works from Varejão’s “Irezumis,” 1994–, and “Proposal for a Catechesis,” 1993–, series, her appropriation of European academic painting is clear, and it is transposed onto tiled canvas surfaces punctuated by images of bloodshed and severed body parts, commenting on the violence of colonialism in Brazil. This exquisitely woven show displays many of the eras and bodies that recur throughout Varejão’s oeuvre.
Over the years, Carlos Bunga has developed a meditative response to architecture that takes the form of sculptural work and site-specific installation. At the National University Museum of Art of Bogotá, a building designed in the modernist tradition by Alberto Estrada, Bunga puts forth an array of propositions that work against and within—and from and toward—context. His installation adds and subtracts content, and it unveils itself to be blatantly rational while at the same time, undisguisedly and somehow unexpectedly, it portrays a sublimation of the contemplative. Never in Bunga’s work had I seen such a rapturous atmosphere, with such little means, as in his intervention in the main interior space of the museum, where two basic elements, a horizontal cardboard strip and a succinct yellow plane, provided an immersive and ecstatic experience. Cardboard is a recurrent material in Bunga’s work. In the previous room it is used to create formidable walls and corridors that radically transform the museum’s architecture, but here it is reduced to its slightest expression, like a plane folded back onto a line, or perhaps onto an idea of a line; such is its silent subtlety.
Bunga’s approach in this project is manifold. In post-Minimalist fashion and through tumultuous action, square concrete shapes have been removed from the floor of the courtyard and stacked nearby. He has also cleared a rectangular surface of grass off the lawn, and an equally reticular ambition is developed in the adjacent space, with cardboard boxes stretching almost endlessly, echoing the structure of the roof. This was a clear example of Bunga’s interest in the precarious transcription of minimal art, much indebted to his signature formalism in opposition to the accomplished yellow paint works that called upon a psychological understanding of space and produced a rather welcome perceptual complexity.