In 2014, the Pakistan Sports Board organized a series of competitions in the Punjab region with the intention of winning more world records for the nation. In her video An Unforeseen Situation, 2015, Bani Abidi muses on her country’s efforts by imagining new concepts for such feats, including setting a record for the largest number of people singing Pakistan’s national anthem, and the most walnuts broken with a man’s forehead in one minute. As to whether these events happened, the video seems to question if that matters.
The work is slick and witty in its simplicity; 150,000 green plastic chairs slowly fill up the frame as we learn about the ostensibly history-making recital. A plan to gift all attendees an apple-shaped polished rock with a small clock mounted on it and a gold leaf on top is expected to guarantee success. But the perfect kitsch objects are boxed away as the many chairs are restacked, and the event is canceled: People are not tempted by the reward and the state is in trouble. In a parallel narrative, a young man practices for the walnut challenge by laying the nuts on a wooden table and doing push-ups before collecting them again. This series of senseless repetitions, with their minimal aesthetic, humorously conveys the delusions of nationalist ideology.
As India and Pakistan both continue to grapple with the trauma of the 1947 Partition, the artist comments on the symbolic production of state power and national identity. An Unforeseen Situation makes a clever satire of these benign-seeming strategies and their dark underpinnings.
Art and its benefactors have long been backed by the labor of working-class people—from those who produce canvases and pigments to those who schlep crates packed with million-dollar paintings. In her exhibition “In Spite of Chores,” Camilla Steinum focuses on such unseen domestic toil. Her show is a dream space made from painting and sculpture in which these laboring bodies merge like phantasms into the works themselves.
Over three metal structures approximating jagged table frames the artist has draped paintings made from household carpets. Within each, bodies and stars are described through drawing, collage, and staining. Given their presentation, though, the carpets offer only partial views of each painting’s figure. In Determined Nap (all works 2017), a peach-colored leg rises past its avocado-green counterpart against a mottled blue background. As reds, lavenders, and yellows abut and bleed into one another, the effect is of tie-dye colluding with figurative painting and industrial textile production. While her materials are immanently sensuous, Steinum reminds us that the show is a fictive space, reliant on the stories and mythologies of art, by way of a small abstracted book made of folded metal attached to a single table leg in Discontent Slumber.
Three bronze-cast carpet beaters (all titled Beater) brandish enigmatic fetish power, flickering between the blunt reality of household drudgery and the easy sensuality of flowers. In so carefully calibrating her lexicon of textures, motifs, and colors, the artist has constructed an uncanny theater of objects. Here, a rethinking of lofty pleasure’s relationship to humble labor seems to move through our own implicated bodies.
In the gallery’s first exhibition since the partnering of Jennifer Chert and Florian Lüdde, this poetic and comedic show reflects on the human body. Featuring work by ten artists, “An Ear, Severed, Listens” also smartly takes into account the viewer’s physical experience in an unorthodox space that includes a small attic room and a basement accessed via a steep ladder.
A standout work on the ground floor is Kasia Fudakowski’s Identititisch, 2013, consisting of two long wooden strips on tall legs with rollers. The surfaces are inlaid with knots and burls from various other wood pieces and arranged to resemble facial features, while the perpendicular tables can be slid up and down to form different combinations, as if making a game of the notion of a fixed identity. Along the lines of this theme of shape-shifting and ambiguity, Emma Hart’s “The Private Eyes” series, 2014, aligns three minimal wall-mounted figures holding clipboards, the contents of which can only be glimpsed in mirror finish eyes above. To see this work, one has to pass through two curtains by Zora Mann (Cosmophagy, 2015) made of recycled plastic flip-flops strung together in the pattern of an eye.
The tips of three giant ceramic fingers with brightly lacquered nails jut from the floor in the attic. This installation by Vanessa Safavi, “Reasons and Disguises,” 2016, is surrounded on all sides by Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano’s wallpaper installation featuring the same tiny sketch on repeat: a two-ended penis with legs running in opposite directions. Rather than undermining earnest engagement with the works, this single joke, with the somewhat grandiose title The Selfie and the Self, 2016, offers a brief moment of levity that leaves gravity to the rest.
Lighthouse (It Is Getting Darker), 2017, is a large wooden lighthouse from which, rather than light, brown banners protrude like cotton rays. The structure connects to a series of small hollow figures, The Memorials for Weak Light, 2017, each lit up from within in commemoration of individuals who died as a result of ongoing struggles against fascism across the world. This exhibition by Chto Delat, a Russian collective of academics, activists, and writers whose name translates to “What should be done,” seems to answer their namesake question with this simple metaphor: Stare into the darkness, and you will find the light.
The main work on view, It Hasn’t Happened to Us Yet. Safe Haven, 2016, is a video shot at a Norwegian residency for artists at risk of censorship or persecution in their home countries. Though fictional, it features the actual inhabitants of the island location and explores what constitutes safe and unsafe spaces in a global political climate where the boundary between the two is increasingly unstable. Here, the lighthouse reappears as a symbol of both rescue and danger, with the resident artists telling their stories from the top of a tower and shouting into the fog for boats to remain in obscurity until light returns, to avoid crashing into the shore.
The last room of the show is covered in inexpensive digital prints plastered onto the walls, like in a teenage bedroom. This installation, Performative Practices of Our Time, 2017, immerses the viewer in an eclectic mix of images from Christian Orthodox–themed nail art and absurd internet memes to a Russian missile launching into Syria. The display is funny, disgusting, and genuinely disturbing––a dark, grim portrait of our contemporary moment which we must first get to know intimately before we can do anything to change it.
In a constant flood of images, the impact of a single picture, however severe, is often immediately overridden. In his installation Shadows, 2014, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar challenges this tendency by taking one image and letting it dominate a space with the intensity of a feeling, or a beating heart. He chose a photograph by Dutch photojournalist Koen Wessing taken in 1978 in Nicaragua, where, after forty-one years, the US-allied military dictatorship in the country was coming to an end. In the final violent convulsions of the regime, Wessing’s lens captured two women whose father had just been killed by authorities, their arms in the air in an almost sculptural gesture—this is the image of absolute despair. The exhibition first presents six backlit photographs, also by Wessing, that chronicle the course of events before and after this moment, before leading visitors into a dark, enclosed space with just this frame displayed. Projected onto an entire back wall, it slowly fades to black while the silhouette of the two women is concurrently illuminated from behind, to the point where its brightness becomes blinding.
In a conversation with Dutch filmmaker Kees Hin, screened in another room, Wessing describes the event: legs and hands trembling, defaulting to basic instincts, and then, moved by intuition, the sound of the shutter. The physical experience of the viewer in this show mirrors Wessing’s own as he took the picture; a testament to the power of images and their material, bodily consequences. If Jaar’s goal is to make us understand something about a certain time and conflict, it is also to stress that understanding must be grounded in both physical and intellectual comprehension. But the work does not elaborate on what kind of action should spring from such insight. Rather, it leaves us, quite simply, struck.
In her sixteenth solo exhibition with the gallery, Cindy Sherman presents twenty large-scale self-portraits that evoke cinematic portrayals of women tortured by aging while demonstrating how women once wore their age with elegance, confidence, and chutzpah.
The artist is known for spotlighting the limited options available to women via her personification of female stereotypes. Her work is poignant because it seems simultaneously intimate and generalized in its exploration of how identity can cause profound anxiety. Aging and society’s scorn for older women has become the artist’s principal topic since 2008, and the anachronistic styling in this current series, from 2016, draws attention to society’s lack of progress in its perception of mature women. The world surrounding the subjects in these photos is unstable, with Sherman mostly shown posed against ominous and discordant, blurry backgrounds. The fuzzy silhouettes of Manhattan’s skyline or hazy, lush gardens appear out of focus, projected on screens behind her, but heavy makeup and sensual costumes made of sequins, velvet, beads, and silk appear in high-definition. To undercut some of her characters’ attempts at masking their age with cosmetics or girlish poses, like the seasoned starlet in Untitled #570 who sports ringlets and an imploring smile, the artist directs attention to timeworn hands with eye-grabbing costume jewelry and manicures.
In Untitled #576, Sherman wears baby-pink leather opera gloves and a pink shearling wrap. Yet her reserved expression and proper demeanor in front of a snowy backdrop reminds one of elegant, polished ladies. By honing her focus on such a constrictive subject, the artist demonstrates how women both internalize and transcend society’s judgment.
Bacteria are the scary, invisible monsters of the public sphere. They cover the earth and, even though some do good, many can be harmful. Violet Dennison’s second show at this gallery examines these microorganisms to develop a narrative around the rituals of washing, cleaning, and scrubbing, which can range from healthy body treatments to ecologically damaging routines.
In HIDE Succession (all works cited, 2017), a short video presented on a flat-screen television, the artist walks through a New York subway station following a mass of people. Shooting with a body camera, Dennison moves like a silent specimen through the hectic crowds until, apparently having no destination, she slowly says aloud, “Bacteria is a careless creature it reproduces without consequence.” The floor installation Pipe Re-Route extends the drainpipe from the gallery’s sink into the exhibition space, where it suddenly leaks soapy, dirty water onto the floor after anyone washes her hands. “Rub and rub,” comments writer Mark von Schlegell in the press release. “You’ll never wash your hands of the public chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and sea-gluten, scum, cum, scales from shining rocks.”
The show extends into a second gallery space, on the opposite side of the street, where the artist presents the wall work Transcend, a fragile installation made from found bent-aluminum piping and eel grass, the latter collected in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and from the Lido in Venice. Contaminated with toxic waste, the shimmering black sea-grass-clad metal is turned into wall-mounted flotsam. Beautiful and uncanny, her works point to ecosystems beyond the surface of the sea or wall-hidden plumbing and toward the unseen.