In 1979, three years before his death at age seventy-six, Walter Battiss published a monograph in which he is described as a “paunchy painter-poet,” “international artist,” “traveller,” and “philosopher.” It is easy to miss this volume, which is part of a display of more than seven hundred of his drawings, paintings, prints, books, and related ephemera, all drawn from the Jack M. Ginsberg Collection. Ginsberg is well-known in South Africa for his support of artists’ books, and his collection evidences his bias toward works on paper more generally, notably Battiss’s vivid and abstractly figurative prints and notational watercolors. Curated by Warren Siebrits, “I Invented Myself” chronologically charts Battiss’s passage from virtuoso naturalist to late-blooming member of the avant-garde. Along the way it details his periods as mimetic recorder of rock art, Post-Impressionist conjurer of Gauguin-like island wildernesses, and Pop printmaker.
Like Picasso, whom he met in 1949, Battiss was not wed to any particular style, technique, or media. Siebrits is aware of this. Drawing on letters written by Battiss to set designer Dacre Punt, a former student who became a secret lover and lifelong confidant, Siebrits burrowed into the artist’s submerged private life to “trace the artistic intentions in many of his major works.” Battiss didn’t produce a major work, not on evidence of this show; his genius existed in the abundance of his output, from his early books popularizing the art of South Africa’s first people to his florid paintings that willfully spurned this earlier art’s elevation of form over color. The final section is the show’s largest, and the most compelling. Devoted to his “Fook Island,” a protean cosmology informed by the artist’s island yearnings and aversion to censorship, it showcases the imaginative plenitude of an impish libertarian––some prefer “gentle anarchist”––operating in the age of high apartheid.
At the entrance of Wong Wai Yin’s first solo exhibition in five years, a small monochromatic video shows the artist lying facedown on the ground, dressed in black (Reborn Every Second, all works 2016). Repeatedly, spirit-like versions of Wong rise from her body and walk away. The work sets the tone for the rest of the show, in which Wong’s videos, paintings, and installations form a wry and resonant account of the feelings, including guilt, anxiety, and fear, that she confronts as a first-time mother. The artist’s psychological (and, to a lesser extent, practical) adjustment to motherhood is the exhibition’s main concern.
Her works are about catharsis and recalibration. In Clearing Ten Thorns, Wong is filmed stomping on pieces of produce, to each of which she has assigned a problematic idea. Patriarchy, for example, is a blueberry—easily squashed. The work that shares the exhibition’s title, Without Trying, comprises a series of watercolor posters that distort and thereby subvert cliché phrases.
The ancient Greeks said, “Know thyself.” If the show is an experiment in self-exposure, it is all the more impressive because that does not seem to come easily to Wong. Her works feel honest and deliberate—an act of will overcoming her nature, as summed up in Don’t Resist the Lightning, an acrylic orange lightning bolt that strikes from the ceiling to the height of Wong’s head, alluding to her anxiety disorder. The exhibition’s focal point is an installation titled Wish You Were Eternal, in which the artist has destroyed all her old works still in her possession and entombed them in three wooden pyramids—a process that must have been as difficult and sad as it was freeing.
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.”
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.
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.
The assassinations and espionage operations carried out in Latin America by the Central Intelligence Agency from 1948 to 1994 are the basis of Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa’s aesthetic criticism in this show. “En nuestra pequeña región de por acá” (In Our Little Region Over Here) revolves around the deaths and disappearances of forty-seven emblematic Cold War–era Latin American political leaders. The works on view have a number of commonalities: They are the product of fifteen years of research on the relationship between different Latin American governments and the CIA, and through many declassified CIA documents, they show erasure and censorship. The works in the exhibition also formulate a compelling hypothesis, indebted, perhaps, to Frances S. Saunders’s work on the funding of the CIA and the development of some North American cultural institutions and of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Jarpa’s critique points out that while the US was coordinating and undertaking shady political operations in alliance with secret organizations throughout Latin America, it was also bolstering Minimalism. In a context of elaborate acts of foul play and plans to put down social and economic demands, a “clean” and seemingly apolitical abstract aesthetic was taking hold. Jarpa envisions Donald Judd’s cubes—which the artist replicates and intervenes on here—as the symbol of that relationship.
While a large site-specific installation takes center stage in the exhibition, a small piece displayed in a tucked-away hallway of the museum is also of interest. The installation, Algunos estamos amenazados de muerte (Some of Us Were Threatened with Death), 2016, consists of a slide projection of images related to the deaths of prominent figures and the positions they held (bishops, senators, presidents). This work reveals, in a discreet and subtle fashion, the underbelly of public life.
Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.