In the “Honor” portion of Wang Xingwei’s latest solo exhibition, “Honor and Disgrace” (co-organized by Platform China Contemporary Art Institute), the saintly figure of Dr. Norman Bethune, a renowned Sino-Japanese War hero, is placed at the center of an absurd composition stirring with restless human bodies. Isolated from the surrounding crowds and picturesque white clouds against the blue sky, Bethune’s image, continuously constructed through historical discourses, has never seemed so unfamiliar. Operating on a wounded soldier, his face twisted with resolve, Bethune seems barely distinguishable from an insane person. Similarly, monk Ji Gong and Sino-Japanese War soldier Xiao He’s larger-than-life scale reinforces the protagonists’ stubborn naïveté, furthering Wang’s exploration of grand heroism in its historical incarnations. The “Disgrace” portion focuses on depictions of antiheroes and reinvents ridiculous narratives of foreign invaders and traitors from World War II. Here, the artist’s marked attention to the “shameless” can be read as a personal political appeal. Wang flattens the picture surface to strengthen color expressions; his baroque lines elevate the overall composition to a sensory fullness. Also noteworthy is the calligraphically inscribed doggerel in each painting—straightforward, “idiotic” texts that rid his subjects of prescribed historical burdens.
Wang’s monumental paintings, with their mix-and-match aesthetics, address the representation of reality via pictorial language. The dialectical relationships underlying the exhibition not only involve honor and disgrace but also allude to organic fluctuations between realistic and reworked representations that constitute painting’s constant self-invention. The exhibition’s bold emphasis on contradictions may well, then, be Wang’s response to a contemporary reality where meaning is incessantly processed and dissolved.
Translated from Chinese by Yitong Wang.
The inaugural exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, “Nothing,” comprises a new site-specific commission of the same name made by Tsang Kin-Wah, who represented Hong Kong at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale. Tsang’s immersive installation uses black-and-white video, sound, and text, and was inspired by the famous verse from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
One small image, depicting a heavily burdened donkey, is projected onto the floor. Another picture takes up an entire wall, showing young men walking through a prison in slow motion. A third part of the installation is displayed separately, in a black room: An abstract video is projected onto the walls to the sound track of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Gradually, then more quickly, the familiar music warps into noise, the shapes of the video start to move violently, and words begin to flash across the screen at random: “silence . . . death . . . flee . . . live . . . danger . . . worth . . . happiness . . . nothing.” The text, drawn from lyrics by Kurt Cobain, brings into focus Tsang’s preoccupation with the paradox of being, but at this point it feels almost unnecessary. The artist’s angst is conveyed powerfully by the sound and imagery alone.
The installation’s final component is a large-scale projection of a tree slowly losing its leaves. It is quiet and redemptive: The leaves, one assumes, will grow back. The cycle will begin again. “Nothing” is a poetic work in four acts distilling the course of a human life—the poor player’s hour upon the stage.
Danh Vō excels in arranging striking presentations from improbable associations between autobiographical innuendos and artifacts. On the ground floor, Lick Me, Lick Me, 2016, a fridge cooling a sixteenth-century wooden Jesus head, acts as a pedestal for a lump from a Roman Empire marble support. Or is it the marble, like an oversize paperweight, keeping the fridge grounded? The stairway holds 2.2.1861, 2009, one of the laborious transcriptions the artist’s father, Phùng Vō, has made of Théophane Vénard’s last correspondence to his father in 1861. In it, the French missionary compares his soon-to-be decapitated head, by way of a swift sword, to a freshly picked spring flower. Suggestively placed at the top of the stairway is Untitled 2016, a fourteenth-century crusader saber.
But the centerpiece of the exhibition is an installation on the first floor made of 450 variegated mammoth fossils and a seventeenth-century ivory Christ statuette suspended from the ceiling, its title a lengthy series of quotes from the 1973 film The Exorcist, including “Let Jesus fuck you!” and “You mother-fucking worthless cocksucker.” In contrast to its first showing in 2015, at the Crystal Palace of the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofía in Madrid, where the Greek cross-shaped glass building designed by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco cased the installation in a sacred atmosphere, here the white walls and lights offer a rather undermining, forensic background.
One is then left amid the vulnerable yet enduring bones and wood, rolling between extremes in piety, guileless fervor, and blasphemous stupor.
Moving through the dark labyrinthine space of “The Serenity of Madness,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first survey of video installations and short films in his home country of Thailand, which later travels to Para Site in Hong Kong, is like making a nocturnal journey into a primitive cave of delirious unknowns. In other words, it is an experience not dissimilar to indulging in any one of his films.
The selected works span from 1994, when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to 2014. His earliest experimental films are the most revealing. In Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (Mae Ya Nang), 1994; 0116643225059, 1994; and Windows, 1999, most of the elements—in both style and substance—associated with Weerasethakul are already established, including structural dualities, play with light and shadow, poetic intensity, mnemonic autobiographical anecdotes, superstitions and local tales. Weerasethakul is arguably one of few leading directors who move effortlessly and successfully between the film and art worlds. His films and installations feed and implement each other symbiotically: Most of his short works are experimental sketches for feature films.
Given Weerasethakul’s nonlinear, dreamlike works one can presume why the thirty-two pieces at the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum are presented in nonchronological order and with little contextual information, though these curatorial choices might work less successfully for audiences unfamiliar with his oeuvre. However, for avid followers of the artist-director, this show offers a rare opportunity to perform poetic and political excavations through layers of strangely familiar images, to trace his works from the quiet mystery to the surreal spectacle of the mundane, and to be, as Weerasethakul once said, “suffocated by beautiful memories.”
“Overpop” is a curatorial collaboration between Jeffrey Deitch and Karen Smith featuring works from seventeen artists who define a “new contemporary aesthetic” (as Deitch calls it) across two distinctive artmaking contexts. The curators describe this as a dialogue. Viewing it feels like eavesdropping—we gaze longingly at the cool Chinese and American kids sitting together in the lunchroom; we feed on their cues. The show is an arousing curatorial vision filled with beauty and gall that keeps its viewers at an admiring distance.
A few artists make “Overpop” exceptional. Ian Cheng’s video projection Emissary in the Squat Gods, 2015, explodes with scenes of ancient, carnivalesque violence, like an 8-bit version of Pasolini’s Salò (1975). As priests and acolytes maneuver awkwardly through pixelated scenes of sacrifice, the video holds us transfixed, teetering on the edge of irony. Wu Di’s The Mother’s Milk – Hi Mama, 2012, toys with both Lucas Cranach the Elder and Jeff Koons: A painting of a woman’s torso, breast emitting cartoon milk, sits behind a yellowing plaster cast of a hybrid Shar Pei–human child. With nightmare machines, animals, and baby-doll parts, Kunniao Tong reminds us that these artists have gone to art school. Camille Henrot’s simple and otherwise prim paintings turn brilliantly toward dark sexual tropes (think New Yorker cartoons with boners and regret). Borna Sammak’s seductive video screens of nature films spliced into splatters of Guy Fieri–style action painting are the perfect summary of the exhibition’s tangle of technology and wit.
Having reached an era when the genre of street photography might feel passé, two concurrent solo exhibitions by the Hong Kong–based German photographer Michael Wolf and the preeminent Chinese photographer Fan Ho bring views of urban life in Hong Kong past and present, which succinctly unites the two shows. Fan, who passed away last June at the age of eighty-five, was part of the Chinese diaspora that fled the mainland for Hong Kong in 1949. Fan’s black-and-white gelatin silver prints, from the 1950s to the 1970s, tell a compelling story through the lens of young refugee dealing with the crisis of displacement and assimilation. The title of the exhibition, “On the Stage of Life,” is in keeping with Fan’s dramatic use of light and shadow. At times suggesting the cinematic, his images of daily life—from lonely back streets to bustling city stairways—convey that an older, long-ago Hong Kong will leave an enduring legacy.
Wolf’s “Informal Solutions” fast-forwards the viewer by looking beyond contemporary Hong Kong’s glitzy skyscrapers and megamalls to its disappearing alleyways. Over the past twenty years, Wolf has photographed disparate but familiar everyday objects—industrial gloves, discarded umbrellas, mops, and abandoned plastic or wooden chairs—found during his daily wanderings to create an ongoing series, also titled “Informal Solutions,” 2003–, of individually framed eight-by-ten color prints that he then clusters together in groups of five to eighteen. Included in this tableaux of artifacts are actual objects collected by the artist along the way—small improvised stools and counter weights to secure tarpaulins for temporary shelters—along with looped thirty-second video clips, such as a single fluttering glove tethered to an exhaust fan, presented on a screen no larger than the color prints. Seeing this installation as a form of visual anthropology, Wolf asserts how Hong Kong’s vanishing back-alley street life constitutes an authentic part of the city’s grassroots culture while also documenting survival strategies of the city’s working poor.
A simple vertical line is the motif that ties together the pieces of Jiang Pengyi’s parallel series “Grace” and “Trace,” both 2014–16. The latter, housed in one building of this venue, comprises thirty-six small Polaroid and emulsion prints—some are lush, and others are tiny seas of washed-out pinks and blues, soft and comforting in the way only instant film can be. A white line either floats within or bifurcates each piece, or, in the case of his emulsion lift prints, sheets of color hover like fabric or wrinkled flesh around the line of a pin protruding from the paper. “Trace” is control and fresh starts. “Grace,” meanwhile, presents a dark, consummating vision, occupying the second building, as a collection of large-scale silver gelatin prints that turn the artist’s three-year excursion through the Southern Hemisphere into haunting, spectral landscapes. These photographs are meant to seduce. They do. The white streaks of waterfalls (some alone and some in groups) in all the prints in “Grace” form visual rhymes with the lines of “Trace” but function as their antithesis: Lines are not made; they declare themselves, dominating landscapes real or imagined. Each photograph is filled with intricate detail, yet the mountains and jungles are muted in twilight, crags barely visible in dim chiaroscuro. Pengyi records these scenes like a last Argonaut, the final witness on a journey through a world now hollowed out. Like drivers on a lonely highway at night, eyes heavy, then suddenly shaken, we are jarred by Pengyi’s landscapes seconds after being lulled. “Grace” records the last vestiges of a natural world freeing itself from the grips of a humanity dozing through the Anthropocene.
Tantalizingly delicate, Mark Prime’s aluminum and brass rod sculptures resemble that first tangle of forms in the game Mikado, after the thin bamboo sticks gathered in a bundle are released and fall to the ground. Only here, the artist’s sticks, or rods—mounted on planes attached to walls or on colored tabletops—produce jagged piles of metal bramble, for the series “Untitled,” 2015–16, and for Ghost I, II, and III, each 2016. Their individual stems are identically clean in edge and surface, and joined to each other with minuscule handcrafted rivets.
The disinterest in monolithic historical Minimalism is obvious. Instead, we experience the invigorating perceptual effects of minute fluctuations of cant, geometry, and shadow within these groups of sculptures. Also installed are Untitled, 2014, and Untitled, 2015, two large photographic works featuring what look like gleaming light sculptures but are in fact installations of high-intensity lasers and mirrors, shot in the dark, and a similar set of four smaller images. It is these almost forensic frames, on which Prime models his metal sculpture, that also reveal the split soul of his work, born into light but aching to get away from its everydayness. The artist, who is a long-term resident of Mumbai and a reputable light designer for exhibitions, seems to want to extrapolate concrete values from the immateriality of light by lending its rudimentary element—piercing rays—the heft of things that tangibly intervene in space.
There is, of course, the danger of mistaking these works for a bunch of disarticulated lighting fixtures. This is where the emphasis on monumental proportion, reduced to a modest, interactive scale, preserves the tension in what looks ordinary but is akin to a burst of minor, repeating ecstasies.
Artsonje Center’s yearlong renovation work has been temporarily suspended while the venue stages “Connect 1: Still Acts”—which presents work by three artists: Lee Bul, Chung Seoyoung, and Kim Sora, all of whom previously had solo exhibitions here. On the third floor is Lee’sMajestic Splendor, 1997/2016, for the first time since its scandalous debut: Ninety-eight pieces of sea bream are ornamented with beads and sequins, individually packed in plastic bags, and attached to the wall in seven rows. When the fish have rotted away, foul air will pervade the gallery—where Lee’s Cyborgs W1–W4, 1998, also dangle from the open ceiling.
In contrast with the sense of chaos and decay expressed, the second-floor space containing Chung’s art seems almost ascetic. Her wooden sculpture Lookout, 1999, standing in the middle of the vast, empty gallery, in fact, resembles a lifeguard tower of the kind one finds on a beach, but it affords no views of anything, thanks to its location and reduced size. Kim, meanwhile, has transformed the museum’s first-floor lobby into a library (Library, 2016). After asking her friends and acquaintances to send her their unwanted books, she created performance scores based on the contents of the ninety-six volumes submitted. Different performers reinterpret each performance throughout the duration of the exhibition, showing how disparate perspectives lead to an idiosyncratic array of content consumption. Overall, by revisiting the museum’s earlier years while simultaneously involving its physical reconstruction as a backdrop, the current exhibition attempts to “connect” its past to the future.
This yearlong three-part show offers an alternative for future generations—its thesis bluntly states that communism is alive and kicking and that it is the solution for contemporary universal matters. Focusing on past events as well as present philosophical discourses, the exhibition’s ideas are supported by sci-fi scenes and outer-space images that trace the technological shift of the twentieth century and the era of Soviet-style “real socialism.” For example, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 2016, a bookcase designed by Nicole Wermers, displays an edition of the compilation. In the spirit of space exploration, the bookcase travels to a different part of the museum for each exhibition installment, and, in an ongoing lecture series, artists and scholars are invited to use the resource to analyze current affairs. Nearby, Noa Yafe’s “The Red Star,” 2016, is a series of captivating framed photographs and holograms depicting space shuttles and Mars, inspired by Alexander Bogdanov’s sci-fi novel exploring a Communist society on that planet.
Works by Anna Lukashevsky, Jonathan Gold, and Raanan Harlap examine the Israeli Communist experience through colorful portraits of Russian immigrants in Haifa today, a large-scale mural, and reliefs of public housing. The curator, Joshua Simon, also presents a video and photographic documentation as part of a series titled “Year One: Jewish-Arab Brotherhood,” 2016, which traces the activities of the local Communist Party that has existed in Mandatory Palestine since 1919. In the short video-interview, two of the members, an Arab and a Jew, express the joy of working together, hinting at the potential of living in equality and peace.
Efrat Natan was raised during the middle of the twentieth century on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, in Israel’s Beit She’an Valley. Without relying too heavily upon her life story, this thoughtful forty-year survey underscores how Natan connects the everyday materials of that time and place to broader, elemental forces. Undershirts, tent fabric, netting, vinyl records, and farm implements are among the items Natan transforms into sculptures, installations, performance props, and other artworks. As a first-time visitor to Israel, I’m sure I missed this art’s many resonances with the nation’s history and terrain. But Natan’s awareness of American and European art of the 1960s and ’70s was manifest. Her artwork aligns with Trisha Brown and Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys and Valie Export; as such names suggest, for Natan, the relationship between the body and the landscape is paramount. She locates, and expresses concisely, the cosmological import of that relationship. Her use of scythes conjures bodily and seasonal rhythms; a large tent hung high on one wall evokes the sun; wisps of white fabric against dark backgrounds summon thoughts of constellations. Nearly everything in the show is black, gray, or white. This visual austerity can lead viewers to think of the artist as a shaman or priestess. But the Conceptual rigor of these pieces reminds us that focused thinking can open up new worlds, too.
A large and meditative canvas showing a very hazy view from Mount Nebo, where Moses stood to view but not to enter the Promised Land; a monochrome drawing of a grotto in Rosh Hanikra, where the historic Palestine Railways passed from the Galilee to Lebanon until it was bombed in 1948; and a realistic rendering of a Palestine one pound note: These are few examples of Lihi Turjeman’s retracing of past narratives combining myth, history, and contemporary politics featured in this exhibition.
At the heart of the show is Center of Gravity, 2016, a canvas placed on the floor, which depicts the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem, flattened like an aerial topographical plan seen on Google maps. We hover above it, knowing that the octagonal structure guards a foundation stone from which, according to monotheistic tradition, the world was created. It is believed to cover the abyss, to be the source of water, the burial site of the first man, and the binding stone where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac. There are numerous stories about this stone, which is both fabled and concrete. And this is exactly the force of Turjeman’s art: laboriously manipulated raw materials—pigments, glue, and gravel—portraying real locations that are themselves pushed to the outmost mythical realm, hovering between the virtual and the real.
Zik Group’s recent installation poignantly remarks on the shaping and narrating of local topography. With an eighty-two-foot-high wooden construction that extends through several stories and with a pool of black water at its base, made almost unapproachable by the pool’s high walls, Minaret of Defense, 2016, highlights the proximity of the museum to the nearby army base Ha’Kirya, whose most recognizable attribute is the Marganit Tower: a tall, flickering center of secretive communications, overlooking the city. Minaret is inspired by the physical appearance of the army base’s structure and its ominous presence in a civilian, urban setting and simultaneously echoes another architectural type—the mosque. More broadly, towers have another significance in local history, since Zionist settlements in pre-state Palestine were marked by single towers, erected overnight, as means to assert ownership and maintain strategic advantage. Consequently, Zik members inevitably invoke the history of Tel Aviv, which was partially formed on the ruins of Arab villages, among them Salame, Abu Kabir, and Sheiskh Munis.
Minaret opened to the public during Israel’s sixty-eighth Independence Day, a date associated with institutional celebrations and not with the emergence of subversive narratives. As public discourse in Israel becomes less democratic with the unapologetic tightening of government control over media and the ongoing trampling of human rights, the mere presence of the installation in a central, mainstream institution bears an even greater importance. Established in 1985, Zik is considered a leading, veteran art collective. From a mountain-based studio near Jerusalem, the group creates elaborate multimedia installations that are often burnt or destroyed in a series of performative gestures. Their avant-garde approach offers a conceptual antithesis to ideas of collectivity rooted in Israeli culture, ideas articulated by the failed enterprise of socialist kibbutzim. As Minaret pierces through the floors of the museum, it uncovers concealed contradictions that coincide in the landscape while highlighting the idiosyncratic practice, history, and identity of its creators.
When this museum reopened last year after a long and painful renovation, it had transformed like a butterfly. The old cocoon was dainty and provincial. The new creature was colorful and strange—and also quite big, nearly five times its previous size, featuring an 8,600-square-foot exhibition hall, with double-high ceilings, plunged two stories underground. Before now, the museum had filled that cavernous new space with a major survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings (primarily) about Beirut, and a smaller, more intimate monographic exhibition for a largely unknown Lebanese modernist named Assadour. The first show to really own the renovation and prove the museum’s seriousness—about contemporary art, politics, and the lives of inhabitants of the city today—is now on view, organized by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez and Nora Razian.
The broader historical backdrops here include climate change, financial crisis, and the real-world usefulness of terms such as Anthropocene or its louche, renegade sister, Capitalocene. Closer to these contexts, this is the first such show to meaningfully respond to Lebanon’s mind-boggling political failure to sort its own garbage, both literally and metaphorically. (The country made headlines last summer when a confluence of factors—including governmental mismanagement, corruption in the private sector, and angry protests by an exasperated public—caused a total breakdown in trash collection services, leading to mountains of waste piling up in the streets.) The photographs, videos, sculptures, sound installations, publications, and prints by seventeen artists here take up themes of contamination, resource extraction, ruin, and waste. Sammy Baloji’s images of Congolese mines set the tone. Pedro Neves Marques’s animations, projecting economic growth and its catastrophes, lend the show a futurist edge. Monira Al Qadiri’s sculptures of pearl-colored deep-sea drill heads give it a sense of humor. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s drawings, photographs, and speculative archeological narratives about core samples from construction sites bring it all back home to postwar, reconstruction-era Beirut, debates about which first animated the city’s most interesting art scene twenty years ago, only to fall eerily silent since.
In its persuasive mix of poetic imagery and realist methodologies, Lewis Fidock’s first solo exhibition at this gallery cannot help but invoke the legacy of Surrealism—and, in particular, the movement’s capacity to be reinvented with each generation. The centerpiece here is a small and enigmatic sculpture, Brain (all works 2016), comprising five legs of a rubber octopus that have emerged from an L-shaped trough, as if seeking traction on the gallery floor. The work, replete with fake water and real cobwebs, resembles an object from an amusement park while also recalling the films of Jean Painlevé, whose studies of octopi and sea horses connected the Surrealists’ fondness for the uncanny to the wonders of the natural sciences. Given its loaded title, Brain might function, paradoxically, as a visual metaphor for the artist’s antididactic approach to art—a Surrealist archetype exalting blind and intuitive artistic exploration. In contrast, Fidock’s surrounding sculptural works, Muscle, Middle Child, and Rover, were constructed through close formal observation, each one a scaled-down replica of a different easel—one found discarded, one still in use at an art school in Melbourne, and one belonging to an artist friend—delicately re-creating all their incidental blobs and splashes of paint.
Although thematically connected to the medium of painting, the three easel works are steeped in the language of sculpture; their change of scale heightens their anthropomorphic qualities, and each faces directly toward Brain as if engaged in a mind-body stare-down. At once bold and understated, Fidock’s exhibition conveys an acute sensitivity to the relation between observation and imagination—and between order and disorder—drawing attention to small details in order to amplify an ambiguous bigger picture.
Vik Muniz’s latest collages are a rare foray into lighthearted abstraction, with swaths of bright color, and textures produced by simple arts-and-crafts processes. Frames enclose sheets of paper that have been crumpled, torn, and layered; punched with holes, stitched with yarn, festooned with ribbons—or so it seems. Each of the works is a partial trompe l’oeil, for which Muniz has combined material process with highly rendered photographs. The photos downplay their own slickness, upholding the pretense that the show’s title, “Handmade,” suggests. The jagged white edges of torn colored paper comprising Untitled (colored tears), 2016, seamlessly alternate with extremely detailed photographs of jagged white edges. Elsewhere, in Untitled (Crumpled paper ultramarine Blue Squares), 2016, we’re fooled into thinking Muniz has cut squares out of a rumpled sheet of paper. In reality, the paper is smooth but convincingly printed with images of wrinkles and square-shaped holes, drop shadows and all. Muniz’s punch lines are reminiscent of bubble gum: brief thrills taken from candy-colored paper.
The works on display seem to magnetically draw the viewer in for closer inspection. But mounted out of reach, inconspicuously above the inside of the gallery door, is a piece of photographic paper curling at its edges, shaded by a gradient from top to bottom. The 1987 Two Nails—which hails from early in Muniz’s career, before he came to focus on figurative collages with weighty political subtexts—is an image of a nail with multiple shadows affixed to the wall with an actual nail. An unfamiliar viewer would be hard pressed to discern which is which, or even whether the work is actually on a piece of paper or is simply another well-executed sleight of hand. From down here, it’s quite difficult to tell.