The first solo exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres in China, at the Rockbund Museum of Art, includes not only his signature participatory works—such as the candy pieces “Untitled” (Public Opinion) and “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) and poster pieces such as “Untitled” (We Don’t Remember)—but also his photography, collage, advertisement, and tattoo works. The show’s scale and range of works make it seem much like a retrospective. Due to the museum’s architecture, visitors—as they ascend the narrow building’s five floors—find themselves on a sentimental journey through which the artist is revealed, layer by layer. In “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991/2016, a performer shows up at a random time every day to dance to music only he himself hears via headphones. Viewers gather and watch in silence, prompted to contemplate public and private spaces, majorities and minorities. Who transgresses limits? Who fears and who is feared? This live work connects the late artist and his era to the here and now.
Various curatorial decisions and the exhibition design make evident the museum’s ardent attempts to cultivate the audience’s experience and its understanding that participation lies at the core of Gonzalez-Torres’s work. The unconditional generosity in his work contrasts with the public’s indefensible response to HIV; the gentle and sweet nature of his oeuvre opposes the abyss of death and terror. In this presentation, then, what does the participatory aspect mean for an audience weaned on an urban Chinese culture that has never processed the spread of HIV/AIDS and that is only beginning to take part in an unfolding discourse around LBGTQ rights. Is it the responsibility of the curators and the museum as a public institution to contextualize the exhibition so that what a visitor takes home from the show is not only the sweet taste of candy?
“Overpop” is a curatorial collaboration between Jeffrey Deitch and Karen Smith featuring works from seventeen artists who define a “new contemporary aesthetic” (as Deitch calls it) across two distinctive artmaking contexts. The curators describe this as a dialogue. Viewing it feels like eavesdropping—we gaze longingly at the cool Chinese and American kids sitting together in the lunchroom; we feed on their cues. The show is an arousing curatorial vision filled with beauty and gall that keeps its viewers at an admiring distance.
A few artists make “Overpop” exceptional. Ian Cheng’s video projection Emissary in the Squat Gods, 2015, explodes with scenes of ancient, carnivalesque violence, like an 8-bit version of Pasolini’s Salň (1975). As priests and acolytes maneuver awkwardly through pixelated scenes of sacrifice, the video holds us transfixed, teetering on the edge of irony. Wu Di’s The Mother’s Milk – Hi Mama, 2012, toys with both Lucas Cranach the Elder and Jeff Koons: A painting of a woman’s torso, breast emitting cartoon milk, sits behind a yellowing plaster cast of a hybrid Shar Pei–human child. With nightmare machines, animals, and baby-doll parts, Kunniao Tong reminds us that these artists have gone to art school. Camille Henrot’s simple and otherwise prim paintings turn brilliantly toward dark sexual tropes (think New Yorker cartoons with boners and regret). Borna Sammak’s seductive video screens of nature films spliced into splatters of Guy Fieri–style action painting are the perfect summary of the exhibition’s tangle of technology and wit.
In “Regarding Embodiment,” Naiza Khan and Manisha Parekh bond over their shared preoccupation with the morphological. An exploration of shapes––biological, cartographic, and symbolic––is the dominant theme of the exhibition, which at first glance seems to be orchestrating a duet between very different materials.
Belonging to a long tradition of South Asian works that render the geographic through representation (Sudhir Patwardhan) and abstraction (Zarina Hashmi), Khan’s matte oils on linen feature multicolored mazes while her monochromatic screen prints show civic plans and dust-hazed cityscapes. That Parekh is inspired by the natural world is most apparent in her expressive graphite drawings that look like diagrams. The hyperfeminine craftsmanship of the series “Enshrined,” 2016, with its rich fabrics, rubs up against the subcellular forms it suggests. Jute pretzels reminiscent of the sculptor Ranjani Shettar adhere to the walls, looking like plasma under a microscope from afar.
Both artists’ desire to examine spatial logics is the abiding focus of the show, pertaining to bodies both biochemical and urban. Also important is the way in which memory imprints itself on physical matter—Parekh titled her ink works after the places in Japan that inspired her, for instance, while Khan’s attempt to highlight the palimpsestic nature of the built environment is more obvious. While emphasizing the violence that underlies industrial development, Khan’s cool palette and sedateness is in sharp contrast to the drama of Parekh’s mediums—silk, velvet, graphite, charcoal, jute, ink, and different grains of paper—though, curatorially, the show doesn’t quite manage to capture this tension.
Connecting the materiality of film to corporeal life, “Negative Horizon” politically locates urgency where image touches skin. Concentrating mostly on the global South, the screen-based works in this exhibition interrogate the conditions of this contact and speculate possibilities of other histories and encounters.
In Jakarta-based artists Tita Salina and Irwan Ahmett’s disquieting installation, the video Inseparable Flakes, 2016, is projected onto a fragile screen made of skin collected from the children of indentured Indonesian fisherman, literalizing a site of trafficked images and real bodies. Through a montage of appropriated film and found WWII Japanese photography, Chung Li-Kao makes a rigorous case for how our collective images are totally subsumed by a mechanical and colonial apparatus. Exhibition curators Fang-Tze Hsu and Pei-Yi Lu also take this critical position in highlighting poetic and activist positions in various works.
In A Romantic Composition, 2015, Futoshi Miyagi reframes the longstanding US military occupation of Okinawa as an untold site of libidinal encounters by creating fictional narratives based on actual ethnographic research of postwar gay life at the US base and nightclubs. Set against the backdrop of nighttime Taipei, Jun Yang’s somnambulistic video meditation on memory further underlines the subjective ambivalence of place and image. In A Short Story on Forgetting and Remembering, 2007, the narrator asks of images of the past, “ What was real? What did we add, imagine or wish?”
The complexity of this experience best reveals itself on the back of a noisy motorcycle taxi traveling through the winding hills of Beitou. As part of an expanded project by Akira Takayama, viewers tour the conflicted vestiges of colonial Japanese and American quarters in this hot-springs resort area, guided by both a smart-phone app and a local driver—a theater of screen and body.
Three artists whose work seems both conceptually and materially dissimilar and five press releases with different interpretations can be found here, though the title of Fiona Connor’s All the Doors in the Walls, 2016, is to be taken literally. Each door in the gallery was stripped of its function; they no longer serve as mediators or passages from one place to another but as static objects of art, disposed toward admiration for their simplicity.
Two women, two beds, and two scars intermingle in Audrey Wollen’s Objects or Themselves, 2015, a twenty-minute video with a voice-over monologue by the artist and a background of a single image, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, 1647–51. A paradigm of female beauty, Rokeby Venus depicts a woman lying on her bed, looking at her reflection in a mirror––but she actually is looking at us, the viewers, admiring her. In 1914, the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed the canvas multiple times in London’s National Gallery in protest of both the arrest of the British suffrage movement’s founder, Emmeline Pankhurst, and the fetishization of the female body. The video’s narration mixes this historical incident with Wollen’s own account of coping with cancer as a teenager, involving a surgery for removing a tumor and the degrading of her body as object during subsequent medical treatment.
On a more playful note, Sydney de Jong’s stripped and multicolored cups and plates (all 2016) are not passive and untouchable artworks. Used on a daily basis by the gallery’s staff, these homewares move from one room to another, oscillating between clean and dirty along the way. The work of these three very different artists becomes connected via mutual transitions from public to private, questioning the modes of presentation that condition us to experience something as visually pleasing.