This exhibition starts in your mind before your eyes even behold it. A show of Arab artists in Iran can be challenging to approach without a preconceived idea that politics is its dominant, if not only, theme. But on viewing the works, it becomes instantly clear that politics has no pride of place in this exhibit as curated by Lila Nazemian. What instead prevails is each artist’s personal account of an aspect of his or her own native country, in a sense functioning as several solo exhibitions grouped together.
From Iraq, Iran’s immediate neighbor and onetime mortal enemy, Wafaa Bilal captures domestic interiors in the aftermath of destruction. A deep sense of longing washes through the photographs comprising his “Ashes Series” 2003–2014, in which home is but a shell containing not life, but nostalgia. Similarly, Lamya Gargash’s photographs of various Emirati interiors from her “Majlis Series,” 2008–2009, series offer a peek into possibility: These ornate spaces incite wonder and unresolved questions. Elsewhere Ahmed Mater’s visual critique of Mecca’s rapid urbanization in the series “Deserts of Pharan,” 2011–2013, points out how Saudi Arabia’s custody of a holy Islamic site pairs with capitalism and cynical development. As Mater seizes on the situation’s irony and blasphemy, one stands in utter awe of his aerial images surveying minuscule humans flocking around enormous constructions.
Upstairs is a display of photographs from Tarek Al Ghoussein’s K-Files, 2013, which documents abandoned homes throughout Kuwait. Despite their derelict state, they exude a sense of life. This work isn’t about habitats though; rather, it darkly comments on the structural causes of their current state of affairs. Largely, this exhibition is all about power play.
Radhika Khimji’s installation Stay Safe, 2016, takes your breath away—not for its sheer beauty but for the compassionate plea that it silently screams. There is something tragic about this abandoned, neglected parachute. Thrown across a wall of the sixteenth-century El Badi Palace, this white symbol of a descent here looks almost accidental. And yet the piece also suggests an arrival while hinting at shelter or escape. Isn’t a parachute meant to land in a safe spot? White is the shroud that covers the dead; how helpless we appear in the face of conflicts that necessitate such wrappings.
Though Khimji’s work looks at rest on these terra-cotta-colored walls, there is an air of painful solitude about it. It’s displayed in relative proximity to a veritable playground of monumental works, but its isolation feels deliberate. Moving on to the array of sculptures close by, Stay Safe is forgotten—why would we want to ponder the state of something neglected, anyway?
A further exploration of the Marrakech Biennale reveals another edition of that installation, this time in the city’s Koutoubia Mosque—a locale with an even heavier gravitas than the first. Here, the parachute lands in a place of worship—perhaps a comment on people’s instinctual flight to safety in a crisis. Is there a relationship between history and a contemporary gesture? More than anything, however, Stay Safe is emblematic of a terrible vulnerability. Be careful where you fall.
There are too many faces in Who Is Joseph Anton, 2012. This psychedelic amalgamation of literary giants includes Salman Rushdie, Anton Chekhov, and Joseph Conrad. They may be three unique personalities, but Mounir Fatmi intends for them to be just one: Joseph Anton, a character who exists only in Rushdie’s mind, a pseudonym that the besieged writer uses to divert attention from his real identity in order to survive. On the opposite wall, a series of ten photographs document a man’s transformation from light to dark skinned in As a Black Man, 2014. The concept of “real” identity discomforts viewers and triggers questions: In which direction is he transitioning? Is he disappearing? Is this more than just one man? The answer to this last inquiry seems to be affirmative, and here, too, are multiple personalities. Motivated by his desire to understand the Other, American journalist John Howard Griffin—the subject of the portraits—attempted to turn himself from white to black. But how powerful is a staging of identity addressed only in black and white photographs? There are more psychological shades of gray to unpack in this intellectual interrogation.
Peering at the surgery in the operating theater depicted in the photograph The Blinding Light, 2013, there is no gore, but rather uncomfortably, the doctors’ heads have been replaced with those of classical saints. In what reads like a twisted prayer for the dying, the patient has a saint’s head, too. Fatmi’s images merge faith, science, and history in a visual narrative that asks the question: Who do you identify with?
In 2009, South African artist Sue Williamson convened a workshop during the Tenth Havana Biennial on what it means to live in the Cuban capital. Now encompassing thirteen total regions, “Other Voices, Other Cities,” 2009–, is a series wherein Williamson produces group photographs of workshop participants holding letters spelling out phrases expressive of their collective beliefs. In Havana, the phrase read, “The blockade is also in the mind,” and in 2009 in Johannesburg, “Who is Johannes?” The latter work appears in this show and is also the cover image of her new monograph. She held another workshop at the Paris launch of the book last January, and included here is the picture Fluctuat Nec Mergitur: The Boat Will Not Sink, Paris, 2016, made on Place de la Bastille of participants displaying the titular English phrase, a variation on the capital’s Latin motto.
Studded with older works such as Pass the Parcel, Jacob, 2007, a collection of twenty-one news clippings documenting South African president Jacob Zuma’s 2006 rape trial, this exhibition shows photography to be a good point of entry into Williamson’s extensive oeuvre. Much of the artist’s work follows an evidentiary imperative. Williamson’s series “From the Inside,” 2000–2004, for instance, is here represented by a diptych portrait of artist Benjamin Borrageiro alongside his statement, painted on a public wall, lashing then president Thabo Mbeki for his wayward theories: “I’m sick of Mbeki saying HIV doesn’t cause AIDS.” Social justice and accountability is evident too in a new series of five etchings on glass, “The Lost District,” 2016, and related drawings in progress in a gallery window, all portraying parts of District Six, a mixed-race neighborhood demolished during apartheid and now the site of Cape Town’s vibrant new gallery scene.
Although principally a sonic experience, James Webb’s exhibition “Ecstatic Interference” affirms the importance of physical objects in the public staging of his sound pieces. Composed of three discrete sound installations, the exhibition features a sixteen-foot-wide, ten-foot tall stack of fifteen speakers that occupies the first room; two eight-inch-wide speakers hung on facing walls of the two adjoining display areas; and a circular hyperdirectional wall speaker measuring more than three feet in diameter suspended on a wall in the rear exhibition space. All of these industrial objects are black and made from materials that Donald Judd identified as having an “obdurate identity,” and because of their understood purpose as transmitters of sound, one doesn’t really consider their physical aesthetic qualities, largely due to the perplexed listening they prompt.
Untitled (With the Sound of Its Own Making) (all works cited, 2016), which plays on the large stack of speakers, is an eighteen-minute recording of nine percussionists poly-rhythmically drumming on wood and steel doors. The work demands and entreats as much as it appeals to the logic of syncopation, and it is powered by a grid of twelve solar panels stationed on the gallery’s roof for the duration of the show. All That Is Unknown plays the sound of two hearts beating from two speakers barely within earshot of each other. The hyperdirectional speaker used for Threnody projects the voice of jazz vocalist Zami Mdingi singing The Beatles’ 1968 song “Helter Skelter” in reverse—Webb likens its hectic audio to a blues spiritual, although Japanese acid rock is also a fair comparison. These works are bound by the artist’s interest in presenting human-made sounds—songs, chants, glossolalic outbursts—in nonfigurative environments that end up inviting a visual encounter as much as an aural experience.
Iconoclasm is all the rage in Cape Town. A week after Zander Blom opened his exhibition “New Paintings,” which includes twenty-one oils featuring marbled paint treatments and blocks of primary colors, eighty-eight shape experiments in ink on paper, and 106 cartoonish interventions on a sundered book by Piet Mondrian, a group of transgender activists at the University of Cape Town stormed an exhibition at the Centre for African Studies Gallery and vandalized works (including one by David Goldblatt) portraying aspects of the yearlong student demonstrations. A month earlier, students protesting housing conditions at the same university also burned numerous historical paintings. Titled Modern Painting: Piet Mondrian, 2015–16, Blom’s defining gesture, of adding saucy phrases, pentagrams, and zombie-like cartoons onto framed photos of Mondrian and his work and then recomposing the outcome as discretely framed images, can seem asinine in comparison: a bit of Dash Snow insouciance enacted in a gilded cage.
But Blom’s gesture is really more a gauche act of creative quotation than an example of purposeful destruction. In an artist’s statement explaining his recent warming to the Dutch painter, Blom claims that he used to think Mondrian was “boring.” This is not entirely true. Even before Blom’s debut exhibition of paintings in 2010, gestural abstractions with a gothic undertow, Blom was looking closely at Mondrian, finding succor, as he wrote in 2007, in the “random mark making” of early works such as Composition with Linen, 1917. Blom translated that encounter into jagged paper sculptures, which he photographed. An artist who has always skittered between irony and sincerity, the canvas works in “New Painting” rehearse Blom’s guileless and enraptured interest in high-modernist painterly ideas regarding form, here testing, straining, and even breaking Mondrian’s rigidity as he searches for something approaching a personal idiom.
Liang Shuo’s Temple of Candour, 2016, is a wild and aestheticized re-creation of the dilapidated monastery of the same name, which is described in Qing dynasty prose. No genuine traces of the temple are preserved at the original site, which gave the artist creative license in constructing an intricately detailed imaginary version. Upon entering, visitors see plant-like overgrowth that engulfs the entire exhibition space, creating a walking path. Liang’s handling of the white cube is deliberately rough and improvisational, and most of his materials are waste from the gallery’s previous exhibition or inventory already on hand. The resulting site-specific sculptural installation places visitors on a compulsory trajectory through the space and works like a camera lens to direct their gaze to picturesque scenes. Wooden packing crates are arranged like mountain trails; cardboard rocks fashion niches in a steel-bamboo forest; the ceiling has a galaxy of small holes, which let dim light shine through. Following a series of whimsical encounters, the visitor arrives at the mountaintop to stand before a sublime Taihu Lake vista made of white wrapping-foam that stretches across the entire gallery floor.
China’s rapidly changing society has consistently presented new obstacles and challenged our capability to comprehend our own reality or ability to act freely. Liang’s exploration of recycled materials can be read as a political gesture, particularly with regard to the contradictions they pose to the refined gallery space. He also invites reflections on the built environment in general.
For the high-minded aesthetes of the art world, Tong Kunniao’s “Dreaming an Earth” may seem like a veritable nightmare. This exhibition is the artist’s sideways reflection of the world, delivered via his aesthetic of mass-produced, cheap commodities. Tong’s series of sculptural assemblages are dynamic “actors” that occupy what he has fashioned into a grim playground. But temporarily suspending judgment on this preposterous scene will abide his more somber form of absurdist commentary—or perhaps the scene is a mere carnival of absurdist formalism.
The most notable feature of “Dreaming an Earth” is its voice-activated components. They move and emit ear-piercing sounds, and sometimes music, thus transforming the gallery into a scene not unlike a fairy-tale dystopia. The “electronic amusement machine” titled Fishing, 2016, is one such work that shocks visitors who trigger it into motion as they approach. Assembled from commonplace household detritus, Fishing reeks of that uniquely Chinese aesthetic known as Shanzhai—a Chinese term for cheap and shamelessly self-aware counterfeit goods. In consideration of this, the sculptures are rendered incapable of brewing up a genuinely horrific atmosphere.
Tong’s ensemble of mash-ups is ripe with perverse absurdity, achieved through his iconoclastic fabrication techniques and also by gathering visual elements from popular culture––emojis, cartoons, puppets, book fragments, archetypal artworks, and traditional symbols––into a hebephrenic mélange. Through spatial and psychological dislocation, Tong transforms his materials’ intrinsic connotations into idiosyncratic social theories, but despite his ironic, even blasphemous messages, the spectacle descends into humorous kitsch. “Dreaming an Earth” uses highly individualistic, intimate visuals to engage its audiences in fantasy, yet it also reveals the convergent tendencies between art and life. Blending collective play with consumerist fantasy, “individuality” ultimately is reduced to a mere strategy of consumerist logic.
Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.
Tony Oursler’s “PriV&te” draws on the artist’s long-standing concern with the implications of data’s encroachment on personal life, in particular Big Brother’s and big business’ yearning to map and identify the human face. This series of seven large and colorful head-shaped panels, four of which are inset with video screens that play animated composites of erratically moving facial features, borrows dots, grids, and numbers reminiscent of measurements used in facial recognition software to adorn each panel. The panels’ surface textures affect a sleek, glittery mood of hyperbolic sci-fi technology.
The mouths featured on four of the LCD screens make largely illegible movements, and occasionally visitors can make out audible fragments of sober sentences. Due to their random timing and plurality, these recognizable phrases sometimes overlap with and interrupt one another, creating a clamor with a psychological gravity. Oursler’s characters, who frequently sound tortured or who appear to be in the midst of inner turmoil, tend to exist in existential spaces, and this series is no exception, albeit with a technological leaning. The largest, most impactful work in the show is EUC%, 2015, a wooden panel held upright by black sandbags in a Brechtian nod toward its own theatricality. By riffing on facial mapping technologies, Oursler is gesturing toward our increasingly quantifiable personal identities. He seems to suggest that if anonymity is becoming null in the crowds of public life, interior privacy will surely be next. This is a message with particular resonance in Hong Kong, whose residents’ recent struggles with the distant Chinese central government are marked by an increasing inability to maintain anonymity when voicing dissent.
Billed as the first-ever chronologically arranged survey of Chinese contemporary art, eighty works from fifty artists in the M+ Sigg Collection are presented in this temporary space. The earliest artworks date from the 1970s, such as Zhang Wei’s small-scale oil-on-paper landscape Red Stop Sign, 1974, an example of the No Name Group’s characteristic plein air paintings. Among the most recent is the ultra-Minimalist, rather literally titled A Stick of Bamboo, 2011, by Hu Qingyan. The chronological nature of the exhibition design helps to illustrate the evolution of creative practices within China as the country transitioned toward a free economy. This sequence also reveals the various challenges and confrontations implicit in such a transition, including censorship, an issue that is taken up in Zhang Peili’s video Water (Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary), 1991.
Unflattering depictions of Chairman Mao now seem predictable, as in Li Shan’s Rouge – Flower, 1995. But several more incendiary works are explicitly critical of the Communist Party, especially visual depictions and documentation of performances that reference the 1989 incident at Tiananmen Square. In the edgy social environment of Hong Kong, this is a deliberate statement by the curator, Pi Li, an art historian and critic from Beijing. However, to mitigate any abrupt encounters with this little-publicized history, M+ has developed an ambitious app that details historical context for each work and provides commentary from artists and curators. This resource, paired with the show’s free admission, underlines M+’s mission to reach the widest audience possible. The institution’s commitment to accessibility is promising for its future as Hong Kong’s eminent public museum. Given the social movements that have recently shaken the island, one wonders if this might be both the first and the last time some of these artworks will meet the public.
Recent public art in Hong Kong has tended toward the lighthearted. Florentijn Hofman’s giant inflated Rubber Duck floated in the harbor in 2013 and Paulo Grangeon’s sixteen hundred papier mâché pandas appeared in flashmobs around the city in 2014. Antony Gormley’s Event Horizon, 2007, is a more cerebral public art project and a response to the island’s condensed and vertical environment. The artist compares his installation to acupuncture: minor displacements realigning the energy of the urban habitat in a healing way.
Gormley’s thirty-one life-size iron sculptures are indexical copies of the artist’s body. Many are positioned on key rooftops throughout Hong Kong’s Central district, such as city hall, the Standard Chartered Bank Building, and the Central police station. In cosmological physics, “event horizon” refers to the limit of the known universe. Here, scattered across the cityscape, the works expand our understanding of how we interact with space and with others, and they question how the built world relates to an inherited earth.
The surprise of glimpsing a human silhouette against the sky might be troubling to some observers—the connotation of suicide is unavoidable. For others, a game could be made of spotting all thirty-one. The project began in 2007, when it was reported that half of the planet’s population lives in urban centers, and it has toured several cities since. Gormley’s eloquent installation is a call to mindfulness in a hectic and densely built-up place, encouraging us to be still for a moment and look up.
Yeh Shih-Chiang’s brushstrokes are arresting despite the deliberate simplicity of their compositions. The exhibition features twenty-eight of the artist’s large, tranquil landscapes painted in the last two decades of his life. Yeh used both ink and oil on paper and canvas, and many works are painted to the extreme edge of their surfaces, acting as windows into his world. He traveled to Taipei from Southern China in 1949 but never made it back. Estranged from the city, he learned to play the zither and created a Chan Buddhism–influenced body of work that resonated with his antiestablishment inclinations. His love for reclusiveness and nature is palpable in Grey Geese Among the Reeds, 2007. This oil-on-canvas waterside scene at first reads like an irregularly grayed rectangle, but closer inspection reveals depth and vibrancy via marks and scratches that craft a bursting flock of geese. The canvas’s subtle changes in color mutely signify shore, water, sky, horizon, and karsts.
An ink-and-color work on paper, Nine-Finger Mountain at Hsu Yuan, 2008, depicts from a dizzying perspective a vista of Yeh’s natal village in Guangdong province. Yeh’s balancing of movement is evidenced in The Great Seto Bridge, 2011, a rendering of the Japanese bridge in blue oil paints, with a single car that seems to be racing across its expanse. He also harmonizes stillness, as in the masterful Line of Trees and Rows of Houses, 2011, an ink painting that carves bamboos, squares for houses, and a patch of blue sky out of the empty space using energetic and blurry brushstrokes. Capturing his subjects as they emerge into cognition, he gives just enough clues to allow the viewer to grasp a landscape, often distant and expansive, while his steady hand maintains control, plucking our consciousness like a vibrating string.
Margaret Lee’s first solo show in Asia doubles as the Dallas Museum of Art’s inaugural off-site project. The commissioned series encompasses photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture, and reflects the artist’s interest in challenging historic structures of identity and power. Ten watercolors in Untitled (all works 2016), in particular, reveal a fascination with calligraphic gesture and distillation of form that is traditionally linked to Western male artists such as Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein. Lee’s works borrow from Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism and also rely on the concept of the readymade. They are a deliberate mix of high and low culture and the fine and decorative arts. Given the wide scope of Lee’s preoccupations and the challenge of exhibiting in an unorthodox restaurant environment, the show is realized successfully with both focus and wit.
A sequence of cropped photographs, Untitled (Seven Views), neatly summarize the project. They include images of a portrait of George Washington, part of a Jasper Johns painting, and a black-and-white detail of the shower in Lee’s Dallas hotel room, a space with which the artist became obsessed. The first two are the only color images on view, in somewhat ironic deference to the nation’s first president and to the great painter. Who Do You Think You Are (Sink), a sculptural tableau, introduces motifs that recur throughout her conceptually concise exhibition. It consists of a large photograph of Brancusi’s Beginning of the World, ca. 1920, printed on metal and displayed alongside a high-end bathroom sink. Inside the sink are a plaster-cast cabbage and eggplant—stand-ins for genitalia that comment on shame and the sanitization of sex, and what the artist calls “human-ness.”
Zhao Yang’s solo exhibition features more than thirty idiosyncratic but allegorical paintings of portraits and landscapes, many of which are inhabited by the distilled silhouettes of mysterious figures. Zhao’s subject matter seems lifted from mythology and Romantic literature, but the works’ unspoken allusions are known only by the artist himself. The leitmotifs of recursion, sometimes mirror images, reveal Zhao’s fascination with nuances in left-right symmetry as an expression of dual symbolic classification. This is emphasized in The Gap, 2015, Zhao’s close interpretation of the spiritual abyss in Caspar David Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs On Rügen, 1818.
Each painting begins with Zhao waiting patiently in front of an empty canvas, sometimes for days, until a vision arrives. He then forays into the canvas, without preliminary sketches, and attempts to convey his immediate emotions and an experience of the sublime. In The Blue, 2015, for example, he first improvised the mountain with simple and swift lines before filling up the pictorial plane with the mermaid, the ocean, and the sky. His excited but fluid brushstrokes dance in all directions to create an unexpected tension that is further accentuated by counter-balancing straight lines with curved counterparts. He blends the crispness of acrylics with the softness of oil, demonstrating his curious aesthetic paradigm that favors the look of visual instability and the notion of sublimity. The ostensibly lineate and reductive quality of his compositions betray his training in Chinese ink painting, as do the thin layers of blue, green, brown, and rouge, colors that characterize Chinese blue-green landscape painting. Rather than rendering gradient shades in relation to a fixed source of light, Zhao employs color to hint at his own susceptibility and view of the world, as a literati ink painter might.
Meta Project’s inaugural exhibition, “Wang Wei’s Guest,” exploits its setting within the heart of Shanghai in a timeworn Western-style housing block where the householders are inquisitive and rarely keep secrets. Similar to Arrow Factory—an art space in a residential area of Beijing that the artist cofounded—such surroundings naturally foster a sense of reciprocated observation between artists and locals. This potential for art to interact with its context has always interested Wang, and his work here—Wang Wei’s Guest, 2016, an uninhabited, slightly lopsided but otherwise exact replica of a police security post set in the residential courtyard––superimposes a layer of contradiction and complexity onto the existing “see and be seen” relationship.
The detailed replication of the security post is evidenced by the placement of its air-conditioning unit and bits of packing tape still clinging to the window. We are compelled to peek inside—but, as with attempts to identify authoritarian power, it is impossible to know anything from the outside. By way of remedy, Wang has transferred all of the sentry box’s contents, including a standard-issue chair and a list of “booth personnel management regulations,” into Meta Project’s adjacent exhibition space. Owing to the security post’s erroneous placement, however, many passersby have overlooked this dimension to the artwork. The paradox he creates relies on the dismantling of the ready-made to achieve its apposition: indoor and outdoor realms are, in fact, parallel worlds that keep an eye on and serve to elucidate each other.
Clearly, neither the artist nor the curators at Meta Space are satisfied with the traditional, safe white cube. They instead focus on bringing invisible ideologies and assumptions into the exhibition space. In doing so, Wang has transformed a place of neighborly observation into a subject to be observed.
Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.
The title “Digging a Hole in China” plays on the Western Hemisphere’s fascination with the imaginary act of digging holes to China. Digging is a direct intervention with the land, and most works in this group exhibition relate directly or conceptually to soil. In the earliest work, Planting Geese, 1994, Zheng Guogu literally “planted” geese in the soil, like carrots, and documented the performance on video. In 2007, Liu Wei and Colin Chinnery collaborated on an intervention in the 798 Art Zone, _Propitiation, which has been re-created on-site. The artists have cut dozens of geometrically shaped holes from the concrete floor, and an adjacent human-size component made of green paint and white porcelain tiles can be walked into, producing the ritualistic feel of a sacred space in the exhibition’s center.
Since the establishment of the PRC, land in China has seen complicated developments: It has been privatized, collectivized, reprivatized, and nationalized. Two works explore this history of struggle between peasants and landlords and the relationship of social class to radical transformations of the land. Xu Tan’s Land and Turf, 2016, is a research-based video work dealing with land-tenure regulations and the social history of plants. Predating this are two films by Wang Jianwei that document the lives of Sichuanese peasants, Living Elsewhere and Production, both 1996. Separate from agrarian traditions, urban land reveals even more complex and abstract power relationships. Liu Chuang’s video Untitled, Dancing Partner, 2010, was filmed from the perspective of highway surveillance cameras; it shows two white sedans cruising in perfect synchrony as they circle Beijing.
Curator Venus Lau’s exploration examines the connections between land and humans, and could have also included the impact of the natural environment, which both shapes and resists human interaction, or simply encompasses human action itself.
Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.
Eerie landscapes and shadowy figures populate Kartik Sood’s debut solo exhibition “In Search of a Dream and Other Stories,” summoning up the oneiric quality that the title promises. Throughout the show, mixed-media paintings portray human forms dwindling before enigmatic natural vistas and forbidding architecture, while videos appear as experiments in stillness and motion, bringing some of the canvases to life through digital manipulation.
There is a rather old-fashioned preoccupation with romantic imagery in works such as Encounter, Witness, and An Act (all works 2015), which feature distant protagonists seemingly whelmed by the outdoors. Meanwhile, Foreign Lands depicts a gothic scene—the dark mass of a building towering over a suburban street and its obscure occupants. The spooky visuals and mossy tints in these works are in somewhat dissonant dialogue with the medium on which they are rendered: a digitally scanned fabric-like paper that the artist produced to evoke “the warmth of a textured surface.” Its curious roughness distracts from the atmospherics of the paintings. But the media interventions don’t stop here. The haunting Suicide Point, with its muted green and magenta tones infusing the picture of a bridge beset by the wilderness, appears in two versions with the same title. Mysterious travelers from the work on paper are seen leaping down the mountain in the video.
The show is equally keen on engaging with old media. It includes a series of six short stories by Manoj Nair, written as a response to the visuals and printed and mounted in a row on a wall. Still, some of Sood’s quieter and more powerful pieces—a series of untitled, uncanny miniature mixed-media works on paper, for example—might not get enough attention.
Comprising about three hundred works, “Hammer on the Square” is an exhaustive retrospective chronicling the career of Indian artist Himmat Shah. Curated by Roobina Karode, the exhibition charts Shah’s progression from his early work with paper and sculptural silver paintings done in plaster of paris, enamel, and silver foil to the terra-cotta and bronze sculptures that he is best known for.
The bronze sculpture Hammer on the Square, 2007–2008, opens the show in the first gallery, wherein Karode sets clusters of works in different media and from different periods in dialogue, revealing a kinship of form. Especially striking in this grouping are Shah’s burnt paper collages—all untitled and from 1962—arranged in a vitrine and juxtaposed with whimsical pen-and-ink drawings from the 1960s to the 1990s.
A large number of terra-cotta works, made between 1980 and 1999 and all untitled, are also on display. Many of these sensuous sculptures remind one of excavated objects: potshards, pillars, totems. Incidentally, Shah is no stranger to archeological sites, as he grew up in Lothal, an artifact-strewn village in Western India where the remains of an ancient Indus valley city were discovered in the 1950s. Some of his terra-cotta pieces hold small found objects glazed in gold, like seeds about to burst, reminiscent of the cosmic egg in creation myths. Among these are several excerpts from the series “Head,” 1980–99. Made to resemble human skulls and carrying scratches and folds made directly on wet clay, these sculptures stare mute in a pregnant, primordial silence as their gaze puts forth to the viewer an urgent yet unknowable question.
Gabriel Orozco’s cultivated nomadism has recently taken him to Japan, where he has resided since early 2015. His exhibition “Visible Labor” showcases the outcomes of exposure to Japanese culture, especially Zen philosophy and its intrinsic considerations of spatiality. On the gallery’s main floor, Orozco has installed discarded wooden beams and columns carved by traditional Japanese carpenters, highly skilled artisan laborers, that he sourced from old houses and temples. These now obsolete wood fragments, stripped of their context and repurposed as post-Minimalist materials, appear in their skeletal form with joints, rods, and cogs exposed.
In a gesture of respect for these woodworkers, Orozco presents a supplementary series of photomontages illustrating joinery techniques developed over time. Not unlike the ancient Zen garden of Ryoanji, there’s a mathematical precision to Orozco’s arrangement of the beams, which transforms the voids between them into pregnant spaces. Further accentuating the geometry of their installation, Orozco has painted the surface of the beams white and has added a playful touch by randomly placing miniature red Ferraris on top of the sculpted beams and alongside wooden Buddha statuettes. Such haphazard logic recalls the constellation of oranges dotting the depopulated outdoor market in his photograph Crazy Tourist, 1991.
In light of Zaha Hadid’s much derided recent plan to build a mammoth Olympic stadium in Meiji Jingu park—criticized as an international starchitect’s meddling on a historic local site—Orozco’s reinterpretation of the country’s centuries-old craftsmanship is a different nature of architectural intervention. “Visible Labor” could be read as a commentary on the increasing gentrification of Tokyo in the lead-up to the city’s hosting the 2020 Games.
Simon Fujiwara’s exhibition “White Day” showcases a number of his projects from recent years together with archival objects from assorted collections, in a large-scale presentation that seems to want to annihilate the boundary separating creation from curation. An antique mask of Stalin is situated in the same room as a fan made after Japan’s defeat in World War II, from currency used by the Japanese during their wartime occupation of the Philippines. Elsewhere, Fujiwara plays the role of commissioner, as in the series of oil paintings titled “Lactose Intolerance,” 2015, depicting glasses of milk, which he ordered from North Korea’s largest state-run art studio, Mansudae, the irony being that the nation is one of the only in the world that produces no fresh milk.
The centerpiece—and probably Fujiwara’s best-known work to date—is Rebekkah, 2012, a so-called rehabilitation project the artist undertook with a young working-class British woman who was involved in the London riots of 2011. Fujiwara filmed Rebekkah’s trip to China, where, among other activities, she visited a factory where she was able to witness the conditions under which many of the brand-name goods she and her mates looted were actually produced. The trip climaxed with a visit to Xi’an, home of the famous terra-cotta warriors, where Rebekkah herself was cast as a statue. In addition to the film, an army of several dozen terra-cotta Rebekkahs has been installed in the final room’s pristine space. It all goes to show: History, like a precious object, is a thing forged by human hands.
As evidenced by Nobuyoshi Araki’s latest exhibition, it appears that losing vision in his right eye three years ago has not impaired the artist from sustaining his ferociously prolific output. Curated by Hisako Motoo, “Imatou” gathers approximately four to five hundred of the photographer’s most recent Polaroids under the same roof in a constantly changing assortment. On display here are works using both Polaroid and Impossible brand film, all arranged in long rows. Some of Araki’s most recent instant photographs are handpainted, and collectively they make up a kaleidoscope of the artist’s signature photographic motifs: floral still lifes in vibrant, painterly colors, poignant snapshots of westerly skies at dawn, and series of nudes. This most recent series, “KaoRi”, 2015, features Araki’s muse in various stages of disrobing her kimono and were shot on site at AM gallery.
Though Araki is renowned for his shunga-inspired bondage nudes known as kinbaku, he is, first and foremost, a tireless point-and-shoot diarist. Not unlike Nan Goldin’s, Araki’s oeuvre is intertwined with his private life to an indistinguishable degree, as epitomized by his 1991 autobiographical series “Winter Journey,” an unflinching account of his wife Yoko’s battle with terminal cancer.
If instant film as a medium is inherent to Araki’s diaristic projects, it may be because the artist descries a propensity for intimacy in its intrinsically illicit nature: An instant photograph circumvents the prying eyes of technicians in the darkroom, often ending up as a fetishized object to be carried around in one’s wallet or secretly stashed away in a drawer. As the boundary between the personal and the public realm perpetually fluctuates in the digital age, this exhibition sets itself apart by imprinting Araki’s most private records indelibly on the vanishing analog format.
Douglas Gordon and Jonathan Monk’s exhibition “Paris Bar” is a collaborative installation comprising colored neon signs of text culled from the menu of the Berlin restaurant. The signs are hung above eye level around the white walls of the basement gallery, and different dishes and drinks flash on and off corresponding to the order and duration in which Gordon and Monk consumed them when they dined at the establishment sometime in 2015. Witnessing the total display, therefore, is no quick thing.
The room is at times lit by a pink “Escargots de Bourgogne,” others by a green “Badoit,” and then a white “Asperge, sauce hollandaise, pomme de terres nouvelles.” The emptiness and relative quiet of the gallery contrasts with the imagined scene of the artists lunching. Visitors can picture the movements and people within the busy restaurant: Gordon and Monk conversing over a bottle of “Châteaux Batailley Grand Cru Classé Pauillac, 2010”; a waiter delivering the main courses; another fixing an “Espresso.”
Here, the neon signs, normally used as outdoor advertisements, allude to the sense of exclusion engendered through the withholding of the intimate details of the meal. They resemble those adorning the front of the Berlin restaurant itself. The viewer, although inside the gallery, remains outside the restaurant. Embodied within this sense of exclusion are ideas related to wealth, celebrity, privacy, and even the desire for cultural capital acquired via artistic comment. We are emphatically deprived of the artists’ voices, and in the sparse gallery, their absence is palpable.
With a one-man show masquerading as the artist’s own funeral, Ryohta Shimamoto challenges the religious rituals that are deeply embedded in Japanese Buddhism. He achieves this with a touch of sacrilege and irreverent black humor. Visitors to “Living Funeral” are greeted by a life-size figure reclining on a deathbed, Nevivor, 2015, a tableau that resembles Buddha’s parinirvana. Fittingly, a Shinto-esque funerary altar enshrines cinerary urns cast from the artist’s face and limbs alongside tiny ceramic pots that overflow with the nail clippings Shimamoto has diligently collected over several years. Hanging on the wall is new calligraphy work executed with bamboo brushes that incorporate strands of his hair—one kakejiku, or hanging scroll, mischievously painted with a brush made of his pubic hair reads: “The self is that other than the non-self.”
Troubling questions beset viewers who encounter Shimamoto’s assiduously lewd artworks: Can one’s nails and body hair still be considered extensions of the self once jettisoned from the body proper? Is artistic creation an intrinsically hygienic act equivalent to trimming one’s fingernails or removing genital hair? The most audacious piece on view is My Contaminated Water, 2016, a C.C. Lemon–branded plastic bottle in a vitrine. The lemonade-flavored fizzy beverage is widely consumed in Japan and appears harmless enough until the viewer learns this bottle’s contents are Shimamoto’s “carbonated urine.” The title also alludes to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Though Shimamoto stages his own funeral in an attempt to confront mortality and to escape anxiety about death, the viewer leaves this survey with a deep-seated helplessness regarding the future of the Japanese nation. Shimamoto’s generation (he is thirty years old this year) must be content living with an abiding fear of the indeterminate consequences of Fukushima’s radioactive fallout for decades to come.
Three monumental floral-patterned murals, Autumn Gold, Deep Ravine, and Dragon’s Fury (all works 2015), together with Untitled Gathering, Manila, a sitting area with 240 similarly painted stools, fashion one of Michael Lin’s patent architectural canvases-cum-retreats. It is a quiet oasis amid an ungentrified neighborhood known for its density and grittiness. While lounging in the generous reds, yellows, and greens of the Taiwanese textile-inspired frescoes of oversize blossoms, viewers might see one of fifteen for-hire pedicabs refurbished with equally vibrant tarps that occasionally pass through the museum in between fares. The pedicabs are a mobile yet untitled component of the exhibition; they will remain decorated after the exhibition, too. On the museum’s mezzanine, there are three models—Dominga, Singalong, and Arellano––named after the barangays (districts) whose residents the artist collaborated with during his stay. Three flagpoles in the exhibition space fly Barangay 730, 733, and 752, flags crafted from the pedicabs’ former tarpaulins that were exchanged for the Lin-designed models. Their iconography is a mix of personal taste and salvaged materials that speak of previous, local ownerships.
The thought of running into one of the revamped vehicles on the streets opens a space of possibility and potential for neighborly cohesion well beyond the pragmatism of simply exchanging used pedicab tarps for new artist-designed ones. Students from the adjacent college helped paint the murals, contributing to what is, at its core, a collaborative exhibition. Lin’s approach resonates with relational aesthetics, and his unifying designs connect disparate audiences across the neighborhood by harnessing the familiarity of the pedal-operated taxis and using them as colorful tethers to attract our eyes, and our minds.
Jane Lee’s residency at Singapore Tyler Print Institute resulted in thirty-three works that represent the artist’s first departure from abstraction. Introducing paper to her remarkably tactile oeuvre, Lee focuses on sequences, cutting, coiling, folding, dying, and otherwise manipulating the material to create her narrative.
Each iteration of Set Me Free I–VII (all works 2015) has a tangle of paper birds emerging from a cylindrical nest spray-painted blue, green, gray, or pink. On a superficial level, these new works do not exude the same confidence and verve as Lee’s 2013 exhibition of paintings, “100 Faces,” featuring canvases with heavy gel-acrylic paint that is confection-like in color and texture. But adapting to the delicate physical properties of paper, the works on view here deliver their messages subversively. Their gentility belies a deeper yearning and themes of freedom and confinement symbolized by the recurring bird motif. It resonates in Singapore, a country celebrating half a century of independence this year.
Another group of seven richly textured pieces, Wings I–VII, are plain white or spray-painted with gradations of color. They are constructed using an intricate method of layering paper that Lee developed during her residency. Wing I, a single large white wing, is eerie in its intimation of impossible flight. Collectively, they raise important questions about the value of liberty in this utopian city-state.
The centerpiece of Kray Chen’s exhibition features an unlikely configuration of mah-jongg tiles. Waiting for the Bird, 2016, has a small square table that will fit exactly fourteen mah-jongg tiles on each edge—the number required to complete a winning hand. Sitting on this table are four combinations of thirteen tiles, each awaiting the crucial last tile. To players of the popular game from China, these four extremely rare winning combinations-to-be are the stuff of legend, and in television and cinema they are milked for the incredulity of their occurrence in scenes of overblown one-upmanship. The artifice of this construction plays up the fantasy, though not without indulging our irrational desires for the utterly improbable and its attendant spectacles. Yet the missing final piece in each combination also registers frustration, a sentiment elaborated on by an accompanying video of a hand impatiently fiddling with the prized tile.
Following the 2008 securitization crisis, probability has gotten a bad name. Casting a wry eye at the mathematical rationalization of uncertainty, Chen foregrounds the superstitions at play. In the video Study and Lose in Gambling, 2016, a pair of hands hurriedly flips through the pages of Marcus du Sautoy’s The Music of the Primes, a numerological field manual that can be otherwise read as the exhibition’s deliberate attempt at self-sabotage. The artwork arises from a deep superstition regarding books as bad luck, as “book” and “lose” are homophonic in Mandarin. The stakes here are heightened by positioning the video beside a display of fifty lottery tickets bought by the artist, each betting on a significant number in his life. A sly mocking tone pervades the show, although throughout, one is left hoping.
Each of the three artists here is a maverick in his respective art scene: Redza Piyadasa, in 1972, created The Great Malaysia Landscape, the first image to deconstruct landscape painting in Malaysia; Johnny Manahan was the first artist in the Philippines to work with video; and Tan Teng-Kee’s 1979 The Picnic has been described as the first “happening” in Singapore. Their practices question the nature of the art object and thus relate to the larger Conceptual art discourse in the 1960s and ’70s.
Artworks in “A Fact Has No Appearance,” like the title’s linguist paradox, are eclipsed by ideas bigger than what they represent. Many of these works are predominately defined through a dense presentation of facsimiles and archival documents, while the original pieces are ephemeral, persisting only in the historical narratives spun from them. This is exemplified in the exhibition’s centerpiece: photo-documentation of Tan’s 1979 The Picnic. Although influenced by Joseph Beuys, Tan claims he had no inclination toward happenings but was more concerned with formalism.
Also represented through archival materials are works that were exhibited at regional and international platforms, such as Tan’s Rider, 1983, and Manahan’s video works Chose I and Chose II, both 1982. One of the most significant tenets of the exhibition is its silence on any direct exchange between the three artists. Thus, the preconceived regionalism of Southeast Asia that viewers may bring to the exhibition proves a tenuous supposition. What we often assume is a static region is, in fact, a convention endorsed by diplomatic vehicles such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Just as historical legacies can form around absent objects, assumed facts rarely need an appearance. However, exhibitions such as this one expose narrative layers; history rarely sits idle and pretty.
The culmination of Charles Lim’s research since 2005 and the most comprehensive in a series of exhibitions, “SEA STATE” is an exhaustive lens through which a practice that seeks to understand national borders not through land but through the sea is revealed. Presented in a gallery with brilliant white floors and light-box ceilings, the art occupies an extremely white “white cube.” But such an archetypal exhibition space seems almost ironic given the inclusion of objects that in any other context could be material evidence, such as maps, a video interview multiscreen video works, and an appropriated buoy.
Suspended within such an atmosphere, works such as Sea State 7: Sandwich, 2015, featuring vertically oriented footage of harbors, and Sea State 3: Inversion, 2014, a 3-D sand print that details the negative space of the seabed surrounding Singapore, cultivate an aesthetics of information. Based on distilled geological data, the nonspecialist may find such work difficult to read––although everyone can appreciate an art object. Expanded on from its last iteration in the Singapore Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, this body of work delves deep into the modern history of the city-state’s land reclamation project. Particularly poignant is Sea State 9: Proclamation, 2015, an adapted map of the city-state’s recovered land that harks back to the Foreshores Act, a law that declares all reclaimed land as belonging to the state and absolved of any public or private rights asserted before it was repossessed.
The artworks presented in “SEA STATE” double as geopolitical residuals from borders that change rapidly and sometimes disappear altogether. Like the elusive delineations that they aim to capture, these objects are tensely poised between art and records of a politically charged and geologically impactful land grab in the region.
Contrary to its title, “Graphic Designs, 2005–2015, Seoul” contains no graphic design works per se. Curators Hyungjin Kim and Min Choi, who are both graphic designers and independent publishers, believe that the products of graphic design are not meant to be displayed in a museum setting. However, they’ve invited twelve artists and artist collectives, critics, journal editors, architects, photographers, and graphic designers to respond to a museum commission in their own idiosyncratic ways.
For the exhibition, the curators compiled 101 Indexes, a catalogue of graphic designs dating from 2005 to 2015 sourced from small, independent studios. The artist collective Kiljong Arcade, with Kiljong Park and two others, derived technological and conceptual terms from the indexes, such as “centering,” “monochrome,” “repetition,” and “object-resembling letter/letter-resembling object,” and used steel and Plexiglas to translate them into three-dimensional artifacts and installations for Three Dimensional World Replies, 2015. Graphic designer Sung Kim presents perhaps the most graphically exciting work here, A Maverick Leopard Jumps Over the Snow Lion and the Capitan Tiger in the Mountain Yosemite, 2015, a digitally printed landscape of fantastic scenery that combines desktop images from eight generations of OS X, from Tiger (2005) to El Capitan (2015).
The show interrogates the validity of conventional boundaries between the autonomous sphere of art and the industrial realm of graphic design. It examines what socioeconomic conditions will lead young designers to establish independent studios instead of pursuing careers in large agencies. This collaborative exhibition of art and design not only demonstrates how the two disciplines are inherently related but also addresses questions about their differences, especially in regard to the nature of commissions, contexts, and their value in the marketplace.
The late-Ming-dynasty painter Dong Qichang was a great synthesizer of earlier styles, and so it makes sense that the current exhibition, at the world’s foremost collection of classical Chinese art, sheds equal light on his activities as a collector and connoisseur, as these pursuits were inseparable from his own artistic output. For instance, his small painting Exotic Peaks and White Clouds, ca. 1611—which consists of a solitary pointed peak rising above a bed of mist, while below is a blurred conglomeration of trees and some implied thatched houses—can be compared here with the innovative “cloudy mountain” style of painting first put forth by father and son painters Mi Fu and Mi Youren during the Song dynasty. The latter artist’s At Ease Among Cloudy Mountains, ca. 960–1279, included in this show, deploys very light washes of ink in rendering the flow of the landscape from right to left across a scroll’s length—a perfect, wavelike rhythm.
The exhibition’s star attraction is Huang Gongwang’s long scroll Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, ca. 1269–1354, which once formed an integral part of Dong’s collection. From a short distance, inky gray blurs form distant treetops; up close, the eye discovers that the trees’ leaves have been carefully formed with thin, minute strokes. The foliage peters out in the midsection, where the desolation of a steppe slowly emerges. Then, as grass begins to appear, there is a lengthening of the monochromatic lines, from which sprout other trees. The process climaxes in the emergence of a majestically high mountain, with black dots cresting its ridges.
Watching Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s film The Way Things Go, 1987, it seems like a prescient indicator of the twenty-first century’s concern with speculative realism. Inanimate objects seem to be magically endowed with human agency in the film, their movements and interactions setting off a chain reaction: A tire rolls over a series of seesaw ramps, eventually bumping into a miniature car carrying a lit candle, which is propelled forward into a set of firecrackers, which then explode, lighting a nearby fuse, and flames spit forward, igniting a patch of oil . . . and so on for half an hour.
The Fischli and Weiss piece is the departure point for this group exhibition of contemporary artists who assign animism to things. The title 000 illustrates the shape of Žilvinas Kempinas’s 2006 work that consists of three circles of magnetic tape being blown against the wall by three industrial-strength fans; a work of modernist sculpture that dances—Calder with electricity! Nils Völker’s Twelve, 2016, is a series of inhaling and exhaling canvas bags and calls to mind the work of Krištof Kintera, an artist who could have also been included here but, frustratingly enough, wasn’t. Elsewhere, Eight Drunken Immortals, 2012, by Ruey-Shiann Shyu, utilizes mechanized metal wheels to make a large-scale ink painting. But the biggest highlight is probably Antoine Terrieux and Camille Vacher’s recurring installations from the 2014 “En Plein Vol (During the Flight)” series starring blow-dryers and assorted small objects, and their dazzling gestures. Positioned on the floor and aimed upward, the dryers revolve a paper airplane around in a perfect circle. A long red thread is jolted to and fro, yet it never escapes from the source of the blow. Terrieux and Vacher demonstrate that in some cases, the foundation of great art is just a bunch of hot air.
Vandy Rattana’s debut show in Taipei is an ambitious curatorial effort to address the instability of historicity through a selection of the artist’s complete and incomplete works from the past seven years. Rattana’s work has consistently probed Cambodia’s psychological landscape after the Khmer Rouge. The exhibition title, “Working-Through: Vandy Rattana and His Ditched Footages,” compares the artist’s practice to the psychoanalytic approach of exploring specific meanings across various contexts. The show moves beyond Rattana’s reputation as a photographer and filmmaker and puts equal weight on his other creative capacities as a writer, researcher, and publisher of original and translated Khmer literature. With multiple narrative methods, Rattana works through fictional and factual material in order to give form to the many unofficial stories and sites he encounters on his ongoing journey into Cambodia’s recent history.
In a sectioned-off dark room, the video Monologue, 2014, weaves together natural and staged events filmed on his sister's grave beneath two mango trees and adjacent to a mass grave, now a paddy field. Devoid of ambient sound, the film features the artist’s voice-over describing the site’s life cycle and its attendant memories. The lyrical quality of Rattana’s work is somewhat mitigated in the adjacent room, where a table of his published books and three walls of photographs and video footage are clinically displayed in an archival format. The photographic series “Bomb Ponds,” 2009, which documents Cambodian land bombed by Americans between 1964 and 1973, is printed to almost one half size of the original photos, exercising a kind of visual restraint. This constrained format compromises the photos’ picturesque, sensual register in favor of a more illustrative reading as historical artifact. Here, the artifact doubles as a material trace of Cambodia’s particular ephemeral topographical history and of Rattana’s artistic process.
“Liu Xiaodong in South Africa” presents a collection of fifty works commissioned for Louis Vuitton’s “Travel Book” series, which led the artist to take a trip to the country in August 2014. The exhibition emphasizes the impossibility of recording all the details of a place by highlighting Liu’s various artistic formats—his journals, discussed in an accompanying video, and his photographs and watercolors, which play off one another in the show. In many of the latter works, light pencil marks bracket the four corners of the center of the xuan paper like a camera’s viewfinder, providing a reminder to viewers that they are seeing an image framed by the hands and eyes of the artist. There are instances when Liu extends beyond the brackets, however, as with a scene of three lions dozing off under the sun in Heading South to South Africa #10, 2014, which was inspired by a vast landscape that cannot be contained within the work’s frame. In others, as in Heading South to South Africa #16, 2014, Liu directs viewers toward the subject of his gaze, here focusing on a white couple looking out at two black Africans and their dog from within the comforts of their train compartment. The ample white space surrounding the image forces viewers to look closely, drawing their eyes toward the center of a work that subtly homes in on the complexity of looking. Throughout the show it appears that Liu is vividly aware of his own position—as if he were also looking through a window—which provides a safe distance between the artist and what he sees.
There is something very quiet, almost subdued about Nadira Husain’s exhibition in this small gallery situated at the intersection of the Jewish and Arab parts of the city. First impressions are misleading—what initially looks like cheaply dyed cottons with painted anachronistically futuristic fonts or old ceramic tiles featuring images of nuts and bolts, molecules, or cell phones are, in fact, richly decorated and ornate objects, with the fabric works based on intensively planned patterns made by hand using traditional Kalamkari textile techniques from India. Husain borrows freely from both the western world where she was raised and her ancestral origins as a Muslim Indian—cartoons and early computer game graphics are coupled with calligraphic texts and vegetable dye to produce intricate artworks telling stories of movement, dislocation, and migration. In Ici, Riace, 2015, for instance, spinning cogwheels seem to crank out the words Riace, a village in southern Italy repopulated by immigrants, and Citta Futura, the name of a nonprofit that sets up craft workshops for refugees. A dotted cat-woman figure intervenes in the composition, as if drifting between places and cultures.
It is rare to find such a mix of the crafted and the socially engaged, especially in Israel, where artists either flee from the political or are completely immersed in it, and where its hard to discover new ways to approach topical issues without falling into ready-made clichés. It takes time, and perhaps a second visit, to let this light and sophisticated installation work on you.
Roee Rosen has adopted alter egos and created fictional biographies throughout his thirty-year career. His retrospective “Group Exhibition” presents drawings, paintings, text, and film authored by his different personas. The works are filled with sexual and violent scenes à la Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (1928), but their scandalousness is diffused by Rosen’s intellectual humor. However, to fully enjoy these often small-scale drawings, one must carefully read the accompanying texts that take the form of novellas or fictional biographies.
Rosen’s characters are crafted and address a collective identity crisis that derives from moral issues specific to Israeli Jewish society. Justine Frank, 2003–2008, for instance, depicts the Belgian Surrealist Jewish artist, active in the 1920s through 1943. She was a feminist who challenged her male Surrealist colleagues by integrating religious Jewish references with extraverted sexuality in her paintings and drawings.
The profound intimacy Rosen achieves with his characters is astonishing, as he fully embodies their layered personas, desires, and fears. In Live and Die as Eva Braun, 1995–97, Rosen allows viewers to experience the last days, death, and postmortem life of Adolf Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun. Black-and-white banners use text and storybook-like drawings to present Braun’s perspective. Rosen contemplates annihilation in various mediums, perhaps the most immediate being a series of pupil-shaped canvases, titled The Funeral Paintings, 2006–, in which he imagines scenes from his own funeral from within the grave. Rosen delivers sex, thrills, religion, and death, the subconscious running wild in his work. Freud would have loved it.
It is immediately palpable that there is something tremendously aged about this exhibition. Most of the pieces look like relics of a bygone era: Antiquated, fragmented, and in ruin, they appear like archaeological remains ready to tell of a forgotten past. Something even seems to have burned through The Sleepwalker, 2014, the first of Diana Al-Hadid’s works here. Perhaps the flames of history have licked across this piece set into the wall—a provocative welcome that sets an eerie mood of demise. Amusingly enough, though, the cavities in this polymer gypsum sculpture create charming shadows on the parquet floor.
A trio of works titled Attack, 2015, Attack Again, and Counter-Attack (both 2016) recall Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. But move a little closer and observe the plethora of colors—there’s something almost too pleasing about them. Another wall-mounted work, Still Life with Gold, 2014, glistens with the color of wealth. Smaller sculptures become dwarfed in this show, especially by Gradiva’s Fourth Wall, 2011, a monumental piece resembling a mythical relic.
At the center of the gallery is the show’s namesake installation, Phantom Limb, 2014, and, as its title suggests, there is a haunting, deep sense of morbidity here. It feels like a frightening wraith or an otherworldly being, shattered and fractured with the passing of time, the grief of neglect, or even the infliction of evil. Layer after delicate layer of this appendage speak of sorrow, but its creamy color induces a sense of awe, perhaps because it beckons death. Should we read a prayer for it, or blow and watch it turn into dust?
Sentiment is often at odds with contemporary art: If it is palatable, familiar, or familial, then it is not considered revolutionary, experimental, or new. This exhibition, “Lest We Forget: Emirati Family Photographs 1950–1999,” taken from an ongoing project started in 2010 on the women’s campus of Zayed University, proves otherwise by featuring a living archive of amateur photographs and films taken by Emirati citizens. It starts at a time when film reached the mass market and ends when digital cameras replaced analog technology. Families are encouraged to donate their own images to the display.
The viewer is exposed to a corrective measure toward a social history not accessible to the journalists and diplomats—themselves outsiders—who often illustrate Abu Dhabi for the rest of the world. The city has expanded at an unprecedented rate in the past decade, so it makes sense that these scratched, achromatic photos on torn scraps, bits of home videos with unsynchronized sound, and installations of vintage telephones, televisions, and Coca Cola bottles are contained in a severe, modern environment. The pristine space catalogues these notes of nostalgia in modular, clinical light boxes and interactive touchscreens displaying orderly family portraits and babies posed on carpets. Global clichés here expose the curiosities of modernity in a place that resembles a near-future science fiction, though one entrenched in its particular antiquities of tradition: Women appear to be mostly phased out of documentation after maturity, and a young HH Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed Al Nahyan parades a falcon on his lap in the 1970s. The accompanying notation explains that the bird is rewarded with the heart of its prey—cut out by the boy’s father—and is served water in an Arabic coffee cup.
Is Youssef Nabil’s solo exhibition a warning for the future or a reminder of the past? Are his painted photographs soaked in a haze of nostalgia or are they a contemporary call to revitalize the dying art form of Egyptian belly dancing? This show feels like all of these and much more. It is enchanting how sound fosters sight here: Emanating from a corner is the tinkling of coins against the beating of a derbak (Arab drum) in the video I Saved My Belly Dancer (all works 2015). Close your eyes and imagine the belt of coins rattling against a gyrating hip moving to the rhythm. Open your eyes to gaze at Nabil’s hand-painted images, and there is actress Salma Hayek, in whom Nabil found a belly dancer. These pictures, colored with Nabil’s trademark turquoise background, evoke a sense of yesteryear, as do the velvety tarboosh (fez) hats and the shimmering medals on many an army general’s suit in I Saved My Belly Dancer #III, #IV, #V, and #VI. In this quadriptych, men in uniform stand proudly next to voluptuous dancers, clad in their own sensual regalia. One poses, glorious, among the type of people who appreciated her most during the golden years of Egyptian cinema, from the 1930s to 1960s, including a bride and groom, cabaret-goers, the army, and Egyptian and Arab elites.
Hayek and the actor Tahar Rahim—Nabil’s alter ego—kiss on a beach under a magical sunset in I Saved My Belly Dancer #XX and #XXII. She dances for him in his dreams, lustfully gazes at the viewer, and finally rides away with him on a white horse in I Saved My Belly Dancer #XXIV and #XXV. It was all a dream, but there are pictures to prove it.
It feels as if you have walked into a dream. The colors in Philip Mueller’s new paintings are muted the way they are in a reverie, save for some luminous creatures and plants that glow effervescently. His fantastical imagination comes through at once. But it is the compositions themselves that make this otherworld feel so unreal. Lord Byron’s portrait on a surfboard greets viewers at the entrance for Byron BFSB (all works 2015). In other works on view, men lounge in the Alpine woods, ride horses, and hunt. Ghosts, dead swans, crosses, and skulls are just some of the symbolic paraphernalia that feature alongside the outlaws. Something about these hedonist-looking fellas seem like they’re mocking society. In Mueller’s Bonbonnière Bar BFSB, a Batman-masked subject grins cheekily, and in Café Landtmann BFSB you are made to feel like an intruder.
In the corner of the gallery hangs a solitary black leather jacket with the words BLACK FLAMINGO SAD BOY, indeed BFSB, on its back in white paint. You come to understand that Mueller has created a fictitious, clandestine gang of debauchees called the Black Flamingos and this jacket seemingly legitimizes their epicurean status. Every gang’s got to have one. These outcasts function purely on the pleasure principle and fend for themselves, decked in masks, in the woods. A walk around the gallery confirms that this solo show is a Freudian model of the id rendered artistically. It’s got escapism all over it.
If there were a sound track to this show, it would oscillate between a soothing Muslim call to prayer, a hypnotizing Sufi chant, an emotional church choir, and instrumental Jewish klezmer. This exhibition is a prayer for the soul.
Y. Z. Kami’s large square canvases that envelop visitors in their cyclical rotations are mesmerizing—each little dab within contributes to a whole, an endless pattern. Indeed, the adage holds true: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Are we looking up at a dome or are we being pulled into a portal to another life? There seems to be one of the latter in White Dome I, 2011–13, where hundreds of rotating minute white squares almost disappear in the haze of a form resembling a door. But this is the only gateway here, as visitors stand surrounded by prayers from another faith or another reality.
Figures punctuate the exhibition. Some look biblical, as in the untitled painting from 2011–12, where a woman with a tilting head is blurred in a Byzantine mist. Eyes closed, she could have just read a prayer in silence, as the person whose clasped, grateful hands are pictured in the misty Untitled (Hands) III, 2013, might have. A little gallery in the center of the exhibition feels purgatorial: The depth and darkness of the painting Black Dome, 2015, is offset by the soapstone floor installation of Rumi poetry, Rumi, the Book of Shams e Tabrizi (In Memory of Mahin Tajadod), 2005. In its center is literally the salt of the earth. How pure. And beside it hangs the epiphany of Gold Dome I, 2015. Are we transcendent yet? Almost.
If you had spoken to Pakistan-born, Delhi-based artist Seher Shah about her work two years ago, she would have summoned a host of architectural references: Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille, the city Chandigarh in India, gridded facades, ribbon windows. On the same subject today, she is likely to discuss her feelings. While Shah has always reveled in injecting slippages into the rational realm of architectural drawing—undoing sections, upending elevation—now she delights in more visceral pursuits of erasure, abstraction, and fathoming materiality.
In her exhibition “The Lightness of Mass,” drawing is no longer strictly representational but rather the site of a different breed of mark-making. Line functions almost as a material. In the series “Brutalist Traces,” 2015, domineering Brutalist structures—the Barbican Centre in London or Delhi’s Akbar Bhawan—appear as ghostly after-images where softly modulating hand-drawn graphite lines elusively render the weighty behemoths, seemingly hovering between presence and absence. Similarly, the multipanel ink-on-paper series “Flatlands (Scrim),” 2015, is a scrim-shifting space in which the architectural stage is invaded by unexpectedly playful marks, ushering in a boisterous fluidity more akin to music than precision draftsmanship.
The etchings in “Unit Object,” 2014, distort the grid by depicting Unité’s facade, outwardly skimmed off the building, bowing and bending in perspective-defying poses, capturing a moment when the plank-like lines cave in, all rendered in viscous black on muted gray. The materiality of this inky black deposit is echoed in Shah’s untitled cast-iron sculptures from 2015, whose untreated surfaces will rust and weather over time—a fitting echo of a maturing process that has taken Shah to this ripe moment in her career.
In today’s volatile context, we witness the disappearance of heritage through hegemonic and even violent processes of decay, shifting contemporary artistic and curatorial practices toward the tension between destruction and preservation. Sensitively curated by Nat Muller, this exhibition builds a dialogue between cultural, environmental, material, and performative concerns, distinguishing itself from other timely curatorial attempts to interrogate the nineteenth-century concept of conservation.
Combing humor and criticality, Taus Makhacheva’s heavy hitter Tightrope (all works cited, 2015) presents an extreme-sports and art-handling mash-up performance wherein a fifth-generation tightrope walker moves sixty-one Dagestani modernist artworks to a precarious open-air storage space over a Caucasian canyon. “The Day We Saw Nothing in Front of Us,” Yazan Khalili’s series of futuristic photographs of a Palestinian landscape that initially looks like a serene Alpine scene, demonstrates the interplay between erasure and image-making, as he has scratched Israeli settlements out.
Stranded Present, a video by Persijn Broersen and Margit Lukács, and pieces from Pia Rönicke’s “The Pages of Day and Night,” a semi-scientific display of fourteen photogravures of plants, similarly draw from colonial history. Initially developed just before ISIS took over ancient archeological sites in Syria, the duo’s video transforms an architectural fragment from antiquarian Robert Wood’s eighteenth-century illustration of Palmyra into a 3-D digital arch melting in slow motion and is projected on two corner walls. Cross-referencing the Danish Arabia Expedition’s records with those of plants recently shipped from a gene bank in Aleppo to the Global Seed Vault, Rönicke’s prints borrow their title from Adonis’s poem about time’s overruling power. Despite the curatorial encoding of artworks as acts of preservation, we are still left pondering vulnerability and resilience.
Pictorially speaking, the modern history of Lebanon forms the predominant narrative in this room. This exhibition opens on a glorious note, with a large-scale aerial image of Beirut in Circle of Confusion, 1997–2014. Both the piece and its intended tryst with the viewer are romantic: mountains on one side, the Mediterranean on the other, and between them, a fabric of sun-drenched buildings in the Lebanese capital. Take a piece of Beirut with you; reach out—you’re invited to do so, as a viewer—and take one of the three thousand photographs on tiled paper squares that make up this artwork portraying this city. Watch the city gradually disappear, and watch yourself appear in a mirror that forms the hidden layer underneath. This is not just a thoughtful musing; it’s an emotional twister. Beirut is gone, but I am still here?
Awe-inspiring for its sheer size is The President’s Album, 2011, an arresting installation of a rocket made out of individual folded sheets of paper, which hangs on the left. Like the other artwork, it is fragmented, here in thirty-two parts. Why is the story of Lebanon so torn? Come closer to each Plexiglas box, discover a folded page within, and behold a great many secrets locked in these sheets. In these albums is the story of one Arab nation’s ambitious plans to join the space race.
Beside this work is another memorial: Photos of faceless men, whose images seemingly deteriorate over time, hang from the wall in Faces, 2009. Unidentified martyrs and politicians hauntingly stare back from their sepia-stained portraits. Does one need a face to remember? Perhaps. The next installation, 180 Seconds of Lasting Images, 2006, almost answers that question: In viewing 4,500 white-colored negatives that make up an abstract mosaic, one realizes that faces are extraneous. Here is a presence, a phantom, even. This is the show at its core: a spirit that remains.
“Looks like fun,” said my companion at Carlos Betancourt’s capacious retrospective “Re-Collections,” looking up at a projection of the artist writhing naked in a room-size pile of glitter for the video En la arena sabrosa (In the Pleasant Sand), 2004. The other half of this installation—dated to 2015—is a grid of several hundred concrete bucket-sand-castle-style cylinders, also smudged in purple sparkles, giving the impression of a weirdly abstract, geometric favor from the artist’s one-man party. “Fun” may be a fitting word for the exhibition’s attitude, whose knowing exuberance in treating often fucked-up subject matter counters Brecht’s strenuously dour suggestion that “he who laughs / has yet not received / the terrible news.”
We’ve all received the terrible news and do laugh anyway. Take for instance Betancourt’s blue monochrome sculptures Bizcochos atómicos (Atomic Cakes) and Carrito de compra atómico (Shopping Cart Atomic), both from 2011, depicting the titular objects as nuclei to be divided by birthday celebrations or at an ordinary meal. The self-unexplanatory addition of some small bananas gives the works a feeling of a Charles Ray extruded through a fruit basket.
The tone fades to an ironic warmth and things become more troubling in Betancourt’s translation of Taíno imagery into photographs of himself in quietly erotic poses, particularly Domingo en la tarde en El Yunque (Sunday Afternoon in El Yunque), 2008, in which, tied up shirtless by red flowers with the rainforest at his back, he purses his eyes against strong sunlight. Here, in a museum reputedly struggling under the weight of what Wall Street calls the colony’s debt, I couldn’t help but think of what our times still have in common with the turn of the sixteenth century, when any Taíno failing to produce the Spanish gold quota would have his hands cut off.
It all began with a public bathroom. Specifically, a fake bathroom that Roberto Plate, a young conceptual artist, installed in 1968 at the Instituto Di Tella. While the toilets did not work, the walls provided a place where, in the form of graffiti, visitors could express their basest instincts and more. Much of the walls’ scrawlings condemned the military dictatorship under General Onganía, who eventually ordered the exhibition to be shut down. When, in response, the other artists in the show burned their works at the entrance, Onganía then closed the institute itself—arguably among the first sites of Argentinian contemporary art—for good.
Perhaps it is this narrative’s significance in conceptual art’s history that led Andrés Duprat, the director of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, to call Plate an “essential” artist. And while there is a partial reconstruction of that banned bathroom and documentation of two other installations, the largest percentage of the works on view in the anthological show “Buenos Aires–Paris–Buenos Aires” are paintings: around one hundred in total, most produced in Paris, where the artist escaped after his work was censored. And Plate has always considered himself an easel painter. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he took exile in painting.
Indeed, Peinture (Paint), 2012, is one of the large canvases on view (and the titles of many of the other works make reference to the act of painting). Depicted, close up, is a palette whose daubs of paint blend into brushstrokes. Representation and abstraction, here, become twinned in a single pursuit: the painted blotch. In this, as in almost all of his pieces, Plate creates a new paradigm around the figure of the classical artist, without diminishing spontaneous pleasure in either the making or viewing of his work.
Translated from Spanish by Jane Brodie.
“Perspective” is Jorge Macchi’s most expansive show to date in his hometown of Buenos Aires. A survey of more than fifty works from the past twenty years—including paintings, collages, videos, and installations—the exhibition is anchored by the tension between Macchi’s broad range of mediums and his ascetic restraint.
Many of the artist’s works explore the basic geometric construction of an action or scene, such as the circumference sketched out by the blades of a ceiling fan or the lines traced by speeding cars. These forms are the starting points for carefully delimited delirium, as in the installation Still Song, 2013, which seems to have been created by rays of light reflecting off a disco ball suspended in the middle of the room. All the surfaces in sight are riddled with what look like large-caliber bullet holes. Did the light wreak havoc and then retreat? The ball has come to a halt, and there’s no music—the party’s really, really over. In an interview with the artist, the exhibition’s curator, Agustín Pérez Rubio, compares Still Song to Lucio Fontana and the prom scene in Carrie (1976)—a perfect pair, considering Macchi’s ability to join the sublime with the macabre and ally elementary gestural marks with slapstick. As art historian Inés Katzenstein puts it in the accompanying catalogue, Macchi produces “errors that work like jokes, but also like triggers of something sinister.” Death looms on the horizon here: Take Monoblock, 2003, for instance, a collage of obituary pages with the text removed, or Doppelgänger, 2005, large Rorschach-like patterns made using gruesome crime reports. Macchi injects violence and deadpan humor into the simplest of forms. He’s a ludic artist, but in many works, like Still Song, there’s an uncanny feeling that he’s brought us to the end of the line.
Chiara Banfi’s “Notações” (Notations) opened just weeks after the journal Science heralded Earth’s official entrance into the Anthropocene; aptly, her exhibition is a study on her discovery that human manipulation of geology is invisibly essential to music. An extremely accurate indicator of frequency and rhythm, quartz is here poised as a technically proficient object, while musical scores are altered to more closely resemble patterns of the natural world.
Banfi plays with the visual metaphor provided by tourmaline, a thin onyx-like mineral that naturally embeds in quartz. A wall installation, Pauta (Staff), 2016, points out how, when arranged, this implanting phenomenon can mimic a musical score. Meanwhile, the installation Pausa de Bach (Pause by Bach), 2016, presents a dozen music stands holding various scores by the German composer. (Twelve is symbolic of his twelve semitones.) Everything on the pages, however, has been blacked out, save for pauses. The inversion of the text brings out visual noise where there should be silence—much like how quartz inversely functions to measure what’s here been blacked out. Behind this work, thirteen obsidian stones from various parts of the world are patched together by RCA cords in Lin Melódica (Melodic Lin), 2016.
Upstairs, Banfi expands on this piece in her series “Confluência” (Confluence), 2015, and again loops together a sundry of stones. It is the only place in the show where they actually appear on the ground, as they might be encountered, though we might trip over their wiring. The convergence seems a reminder of how as music becomes increasingly free, both in accessibility and variety, it cannot be entirely abstracted from the materials that support it.
As one walks into the dark gallery, Luisa Strina’s old Oscar Freire Street space now reactivated for this show, it’s hard not to look at the golden mask shimmering under a faint spotlight. Mateo López placed it there like a jewel or an ancient artifact that takes on the form of a ghostly presence, floating in space. In a way, most of the other works in this solo show, especially those in this dimly lit chamber, seem to be charged with a different energy, not just motionless sculptural fragments presented for contemplation.
Time and memory are fused here in what López understands as an intimate choreography, a setup that echoes the daily routine of his New York studio; it’s as though each object made by the artist were impregnated with his thoughts and recollections. While the works, hanging from the ceiling or carefully balanced on metal rods, betray traces of movement, videos nearby show those same pieces in dynamic states as dancers interact with them. The jaunty, robotic moves of a dancer on the screen, for example, tend to exaggerate the organic aspects of the golden mask, which seems rounder and more polished against such an angular body.
Other pieces, such as a measuring tape wrapped around a clay jug, offer powerful examples of how López has been moving away from rational geometric abstraction rooted in a constructivist DNA of sorts. Here, organic accidents and precise mathematical calculations embrace in a delicate struggle between chance and architecture. Outside on the terrace, loose metallic numbers lie in a circle, resembling a deconstructed clock, an allusion to the twisted way time goes by in the mind of an artist.
The work of Willys de Castro is less silent than we assume. Sparsely hung with only two or three artworks in each of the exhibition’s four rooms, the Neo-concrete artist’s latest solo show gives his “Objeto Ativo” (Active Object) series, 1959-1962, enough space to breathe. Some of his most famous and influential pieces are on display, and the slender pieces of wood covered in geometric patterns engage with poems by the artist—many unknown until now—that are shown alongside the works.
“Lado a Lado,” Portuguese for “side by side,” is the title of one such poem and also the name of the exhibition. It couldn’t be more fitting, as each artwork in “Objeto Ativo” is painted with a balanced and dualistic composition of complementary colors. On the typed page, the a in “lado a lado” is slightly below the rest of the words, occupying a place analogous to that of the viewer standing before the art, which hangs at a slightly elevated position on the wall. Somewhere in between, beholders are subject to the faint glow of two distinct chromatic experiences merging.
When he invented the Objeto Ativo in 1959, Castro was thinking about how art can trigger spontaneous choreographies in space. He hoped to manipulate the bodies of his audience in much the same way as Neo-concretists Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark. But unlike his Carioca colleagues, Castro lived in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, and sustained some of the austerity of the Concrete school that originated there. His oeuvre is thus closer to industrial design and less organic in nature. Here, we see him at his peak, poised between the rigidity of the concrete jungle and the Neo-concretist desire for movement that blossomed in Rio.