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View of “Omer Fast: August,” 2017. Installation view, James Cohan Gallery, New York.

Chinatown Art Brigade Protests Omer Fast Exhibition at James Cohan Gallery

A group of artists and activists known as the Chinatown Art Brigade—established in 2015 by Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong, and Betty Yu—have called out what they perceive to be racism in the current exhibition at James Cohan Gallery’s Chinatown location in New York.

The show is an installation by the Berlin-based artist Omer Fast that includes video and film, including a 2016 work inspired by the life and work of German photographer August Sander. The gallery’s press release notes that the exhibition features a change in the facade and interiors of the gallery to resemble “what they were like before gentrification: the waiting room of a Chinatown business with an eclectic aesthetic.” The gallery goes on to note that the installation is meant to address the following: “In a very tense political climate, this ambiguous gesture represents a futile attempt to roll back the clock and speak about community, citizenship, and identity.”

CAB criticized the exhibition in an open letter to the gallery. It stated: “Not only does this guise have little to no bearing on the actual works being shown, the choice of visual signifiers is a racist aggression towards the community of Chinatown that James Cohan Gallery is currently gentrifying.”

It also addresses the artist’s practice in the context of Chinatown: “As a gallery representing the non U.S., non New York based artist Omer Fast, it is reprehensible that you see fit to support this exploration of ‘temporal space’ while contributing to the displacement of low income tenants and business owners in Chinatown. The artist may be heavily invested in ideas of ambivalence, ambiguity, and the theatrics of performing authenticity, but let it be known that there is no ambiguity in the critical conditions residents here are facing today.” The writers close their statement with the hashtags #RacistGallery and #JamesCohan #ShutItDown. Their letter, issued on October 2, is available in full here.

On Sunday, October 15, dozens of protesters gathered at the gallery. According to DNAinfo, CAB’s Betty Yu read the letter aloud through a megaphone inside the gallery, while attendees held signs that read: “Racist art has no business here!” and “Racism Disguised as Art.”

In response to the controversy, James Cohan Gallery made the following statement, “Omer Fast’s work provides an intentionally-uncomfortable look inward—both at himself, an immigrant to the US, and at the Gallery, a new arrival to an established neighborhood. That this work would generate such a variety of strong reactions — positive and negative, reinforces the paradox it is trying to capture. We not only take these expressions seriously, we’ve tried to honor them. People are free to draw their own conclusions about art, but they should also be given the opportunity to do so—without censorship, barriers or intimidation.”

In a statement issued by the artist, Fast said, “I’m not surprised there have been critical reactions. I completely understand people’s need to push back. . . .But I am surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling. A group of protestors hanged [sic] a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing ‘a non-US and non-New York artist.’ I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.”

The artist’s full statement can be read here:

As part of my first exhibition at James Cohan’s Chinatown gallery, I decided to transform the facade and interior in a symbolic and temporary act of erasure. I wanted to erase the passage of time and to recreate what the space looked like before the gallery moved in almost two years ago. The tall glass facade and white-cube interior would disappear and the space would lose its more recent identity as an upscale gallery. The back spaces, where the gallery’s business takes place, were left untouched. No one working there was asked to perform or do anything different. As such, there was nothing radically transformative about this intervention since it was neither disruptive nor permanent. I’m aware how superficial such a formal transformation might seem, but I was precisely interested in this conflict between appearance and essence.

As a teenage immigrant to the United States and a naturalized American, I’ve long felt the tension between appearance and essence. I know many first- and second-generation immigrants experience the same challenge: how to reconcile a foreign identity with a local one, how to connect old and new, outward facade and inner space. In the case of the intervention at James Cohan, the actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.

I’m not surprised there have been critical reactions. I completely understand people’s need to push back. We all have unseemly baggage, racist and otherwise, that needs to be sorted through. We all overstep bounds and must shine a light on our darker hypocrisies, myself included. For good and for bad, artists do this in public. But I am surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling. A group of protestors hanged [sic] a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing “a non-US and non-New York artist.” I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.

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