Jody Paulsen did not have art historian Robert Pincus-Witten in mind when, in a summary of his personal aesthetic credo, he told an interviewer in 2015: “Right now, artistically, I’m in a maximalist phase. I don’t like any blank spaces.” If anything, Paulsen was describing his generous approach to composition in his felt collages, pieces featuring pithy text slogans referencing his mixed-race queer identity that, as finished work, operate as soft sculpture and exuberant public confessionals. His propensity toward visual surplus is also a hallmark of this show: Here, Paulsen manages to fit nearly all twenty-one of his felt collages, eight photographs, seven assemblage pieces, and three floor-based installations featuring branded handbags and stuffed birds, as well as a display of forty white shirts and black ties, into one room.
Paulsen’s collages dominate. They invite comparisons with Jeremy Deller’s processional banners and Tracey Emin’s quilts, although, attitudinally at least, the work is closer to Warhol’s in its love affair with consumer culture. Paulsen rarely ironizes the fashion brands and mainstream icons quoted in his work. Homoexotica: The Real Housewives of Disney, 2016, a nine-by-fourteen-foot collage, is exemplary: It offers straight likenesses of various Disney characters fringed by a tropical border of delicious monster fronds. His neo-Pop method is not without a critical conscience, however. The Love Algorithm, 2017, anatomizes the prejudices of queer cruising sites by simply quoting user preferences—“no blacks” and “no fats”—while Uganda and We’ll Never Have Jamaica, both 2016, skewer Uganda and Jamaica’s homophobic laws with speculative heraldic designs featuring exotic birds and bare-chested men wielding clubs. Heartburn, 2016, shifts the register: Picasso’s 1937 cubist portrait of Dora Maar, faithfully reproduced here, emerges as an unexpected source of his color-drenched maximal aesthetic.
In a 2009 performance titled Knitwit, maverick artist Barend de Wet, sporting a churchly suit and calling himself the “Knitting Bull,” loudly—like a lay preacher—implored his audience to “Knit!” In light of the sixty-four mostly contemporary works by thirty-three artists and collectives assembled for this concise survey of weaving, knitting, sewing, lace making, tapestry, beading, and embroidery practices, his entreaty was also a declaration of fact. De Wet is represented in this exhibition by Crochet (Shroud), 2013, a candy-colored knitted garment draped over a standing figure. It appears next to a color photograph by Siwa Mgoboza, Les Étres D’Africadia (After Les Demoiselles D’Avignon), 2015, a Picasso-parodying tableau with five black figures in costumes made by the artist from Shweshwe, a printed cotton fabric common in southern Africa.
Although mostly occupied with mapping the present, “Women’s Work” includes historical pieces that underscore the show’s thesis: Textile arts are often a collective endeavor and are encumbered by prejudicial, gendered assumptions. Africa, a large seventeenth-century wool-and-silk tapestry of Flemish origin that offers a hoary allegory of bounty and danger replete with the folkloric Queen of Sheba, is installed opposite two wool tapestries by Athi-Patra Ruga, The Glamouring of the Versatile Ivy, 2015, and Invitation . . . Presentation . . . Induction, 2013, both figurative works that portray the artist’s queer-influenced matriarchal reimagining of postapartheid history. A rectangular lace insert produced in the 1830s by a Cape Town slave known only as Melati smartly draws attention to the city’s history as a garment-making center—this once robust industry has been gutted by globalization. Zyma Amien memorializes this proximate history in two installations composed of found objects: Unpick, 2015, a display of atomized sewing-machine parts, and Paying Homage, 2016, three vintage sewing machines framed by vertical lengths of fabric decorated with sewing pins.
It helps to know that Soweto, South Africa–born photographer Phumzile Khanyile, whose debut exhibition caps a year of playful self-interrogation with a camera, doesn’t have a regular look: Her personal style is an elaborate work in progress. In one of the thirty-two photographs collectively titled “Plastic Crowns” (all works 2016) inaugurating the Market Photo Workshop’s new premises, the artist wears a merlot-colored wig and titular headpiece while inflating a pink balloon, her cheeks swollen like a trumpet player at work. The wig is not a prop: Khanyile—who was born in 1991, two years after David Goldblatt founded this photo school—sometimes wears this adornment as part of her daily doings. This show, though, the culmination of a yearlong mentorship with American portraitist Ayana V. Jackson, includes a quartet of grainy sepia nudes, sans wig.
Installed in clusters on red-painted walls, Khanyile’s photographs are irregularly framed and interspersed with mirrors. The politics of black hair is a recurring point of exploration, as is the role of birthright and commodity culture in fashioning a temporal sense of self. In another self-portrait, she wears a red shoe belonging to her mother; only her left leg is visible. The largest framed photograph is a minimal composition featuring a single luxury-brand cigarette with gold trim and cursive lettering. The domestic-scale identity politics is very Instagram but also broadens the corpus of postdocumentary-style photography introduced by earlier graduates of this workshop, notably Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko and Musa Nxumalo. Khanyile’s work tracks wider, recalling the awkwardness of Francesca Woodman’s frail self-imaging and the commodity fetishism of Guy Bourdin—names you wouldn’t associate with this storied school of photography whose graduates include Zanele Muholi and Jodi Bieber. Her exhibition marks a new chapter.
Travel, one could argue, spans three basic notions: time, displacement, and experience. The artist-curator duo Guo Xi and Zhang Jianling have not only adopted travel as a narrative device in their artistic practice in the past (their nautical expedition in 2015 resulted in the work The Great Navigation) but have also translated their shared intrigues, in discovering an alternative narrative, into their work. This exhibition offers a survey of artist peers who have taken up the torch and explored journeys of their own making.
Whether it is through hypothetical time travel to the future in order to examine the present retrospectively (Joeun Aatchim’s series “Draft,” 2016, is made up of uneven pieces of stone mosaics on which the viewer finds text from an unfinished email) or piecing together the memories of lost footage to reconstruct a travel experience (Yunyu Ayo Shih’s postage stamp), the works allow viewers glimpses into slippage: the unexpected and uncertain moments in each artist’s oeuvre. Tong Yixin compounds quotidian experience into tapestries, while Zhu Changquan collages various visual elements of travel into moving images that defy linear notions of time and displacement. Feng Chen’s Single Eye, 2013–14, and W, 2015, are mechanical inventions; the former, inspired by an artist’s friend’s limited eyesight, is an ocular device that adds 3-D depth to a visual field; the latter mimics the sound of waves. Meanwhile, Su Yuxin condenses temporal and geographical experiences of displacement onto canvas. While exploring peripatetic themes, these devices serve as meditations on popular culture, fiction, identity, institutional critique, and art-historical references, to name a few, in which the exhibited artists’ practices are deeply engaged. As a viewer traverses these vignettes, visual clues act as pinholes through which one may peep into journeys taken by others choosing the road less traveled.
The Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage was thirteen years old and waiting outside a cinema in Nairobi when he witnessed a bizarre scene: A naked man with a tire around his neck was being chased through the streets by a mob, in an act of unlawful gang justice. Necklacing (all works 2016) depicts Armitage’s memory of the pursued subject, with his head turned to reveal a clownlike face. The haunting and humorous image is framed by two sutures in the canvas’s surface. Armitage paints with oil on cloth made from Lubugo bark, which is more commonly used to make sacred fabrics. When stretched across a frame, the material naturally perforates.
Several other works concern Baikoko, a sexually explicit dance that originated in coastal Tanzania. In Baikoko at the Mouth of the Mwachema River, the dancers seem to hover above the ground. Their ecstatic practice, performed by women only, has faced growing government censorship. For Strange Fruit, the artist drew on a news item from Kenya in which a man accused of witchcraft was killed by a mob. His wife, bereft, committed suicide. A tree is portrayed from the vantage point of someone looking up at its canopy of leaves. The small soles of a woman’s feet dangle high among the twisting branches—the subtle horror of the scene is sharpened by the title’s reference to a well-known protest song about lynching.
The exhibition offers a curious and compassionate study of sexuality and survival in contemporary East Africa. There is a duality of feeling in these images—as though, to Armitage, the society he represents is both flawed and sacrosanct, like the cloth on which he paints.
What do we mean when we talk about post-internet art? For curators Klaus Biesenbach and Peter Eleey, it is in part a question of geography. For this exhibition, they have selected eighteen works by Chinese and Western artists that explore how regional diversities and differences are informed by our digital age and consequently affect contemporary art practices. It represents the first sortie of an ongoing research partnership between the K11 Art Foundation and MoMA PS1. Many of the works, which range from Wang Xin’s virtual-reality installation The Gallery, 2014–, to Oliver Payne’s classical trompe l’oeil mural Untitled (Portal Painting), 2017, seem to find form and subject in between the digital and analog realms. In Aleksandra Domanović’s film From Yu to Me, 2013–14, the .yu domain becomes a tangible relic of the vanished country, Yugoslavia, where the artist was born. She reminds us of the fragility of universalizing systems in a period of nationalist retrenchment. An untitled 2015 silk-screen print by Laura Owens was created with an early twentieth-century cartoon of Nikola Tesla that lampooned the inventor’s prophetic World Wireless System. Over the purposely fragmented and pixelated image, Owen applied paint in thick, textural strokes. Finally, in a pair of surreal video pieces by Cao Fei (The Birth of RMB City, 2009) and Sondra Perry (Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, 2016), each artist’s virtual avatar navigates urgent realities. Such clever juxtapositions throughout the show challenge the notion of the World Wide Web as a utopian space unencumbered by boundaries, territorial or otherwise.
Caught between East and West, Hong Kong, with its distinctive business-fueled urban culture, has always been an emblem of the cultural hybridity of which Homi Bhabha writes. In Chan Koonchung’s words, that hybridity characterizes old Guangdong itself: half China, half foreign, neither fully ancient nor fully contemporary. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong’s popular culture—its flourishing film and television industries and its literary output alike—was no exception. Although its regional influence in Asia was far-reaching, a single-minded focus on entertainment often led to a stereotype of Hong Kong as a “cultural desert.”
M+ Pavilion’s new exhibition does not sidestep these criticisms, nor does it attempt to make popular culture elegant. Taking the notable phenomenon of gender ambiguity in Hong Kong’s popular culture as a starting point, the exhibition remains contained in size, using four distinct sections to explore experimental manifestations of boundary-crossing identities.
To emphasize Hong Kong pop culture’s golden age, the exhibition’s atmosphere takes on the lushness of the theme song in Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (1993). The splendor of singer Leslie Cheung appearing in red beads and high heels is case in point. So too are legendary stars Roman Tam, Anita Mui, Denise Ho, seen in costume with extravagant props, in multicolor scenes synonymous with Cantonese pop-music performances. The same period of film and television production further refined expressions of gender fluidity, as sexual ambiguity became a unifying feature of the scenes and stills of films ranging from Rouge (1987) to Peony Pavilion (2001). Similarly, Julian Lee and Wing Shya’s character photography, Alan Chan’s graphic design and urban periodicals such as City Magazine and 100 Most also become multivalent stagings of visual experimentation. Finally, works from M+’s collection, by artists such as Wilson Shieh, Ming Wong, Stanley Wong, and Ho Sin Tung, reflect how pop-cultural elements infiltrate contemporary art.
Strictly speaking, “Ambiguously Yours” is more than just an art exhibition: It exemplifies both M+’s ongoing ambitions to shape visual culture and its step toward adding popular culture to its taxonomy of interests. However, given that Hong Kong’s cultural identity and territorial status remain in flux, the exhibition falls short of providing multiple perspectives on gender fluidity.
Translated from Chinese by Du Keke and Dawn Chan.
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?
Ni Jun’s “Deep Blue Sea” opts for bilgewater over Condé Nast vistas. The exhibition is filled with mostly small, nautically themed paintings lashed to the gallery’s pillars with twine and wire. A few paintings are scattered randomly atop large stock photos of sea vessels and waterways that cover every wall. The space is awash in dark blues that seem painted, perhaps, from the perspective of a seafarer, a castaway, or maybe even a drowning victim. In part, Jun seeks to redress the absenting of the sea from Chinese painting, as exhibition texts suggest, not so much to fill a void but to return to a premise: the spiritual and worldly balance of water and its indifference to us even as it forces us to yield. Jun resuscitates the sea with equal doses of Lao-tzu and Steve Zissou.
The two most recent works in the exhibition are the most impressive. Indian Ocean, 2016, is a large-scale painting whose composition lists heavily to one side, the horizon line tilted as it portrays the view from the deck of a vessel caught in unpredictable currents and violent waves of green foam. Passing Through the English Channel, 2016, is subdued: a small boat seen at a distance through hazy moonlight, passing into a blue-gray nothingness. Even the smallest works offer impossible depth. Tianjin Bay, 2013, is filled with intense blues, a tiny cargo ship in the distance. The beach in Morning Sea, 2007, shares the precision of a Hiroshi Sugimoto photograph. The still life Old Cowboy, 2011, depicts a fishmonger’s catch of the day, showing Jun’s lightness of touch. The artist’s paintings can be quiet and meditative or they can be filled with the sounds of engines and waves and the taste of salt and Dramamine.
“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 Salò (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 “Energy Plan for the Western Man,” 1979, Joseph Beuys spoke of the “chemical reactions, fermentation, color changes, decay, [and] drying up” that characterize his work. “Energy Field,” a transmedia exhibition at MOCA Shanghai, tests Beuys’s method in explicit and surprising ways. Could the curator have anticipated, for example, that Han Xia’s ASCII Mirror, 2015, a large projection of cascading green Matrix-like open code, would be complemented by the bright Mac OS X desktop screen appearing on the opposite wall, museum staff valiantly attempting to reboot the computer?
There is nothing sterile about the exhibition’s homage to a Conceptual artmaking genealogy. The show is filled with a haphazard, disorientating, and inviting collection of mostly videos and projections. In Yang Fudong’s My Heart Was Touched Last Year, 2007, the massive projection of what at first appears to be a black-and-white, Helmut Newton–esque photograph of a model, hair pulled back, her hand barely touching her cheek, turns out to be recorded footage, as evidenced by her breathing and the subtle motion of her lips; her humanness is exposed, a living tableau in a darkened, silent room. Zhenzhong Yang’s Disinfect, 2015, similarly plays off silence and darkness, with life-size figures projected against a black void, silently hurling pantomimed insults at the viewer in slow motion. It is hard to shake their collective gaze and even harder not to cringe and stare. Throughout the exhibition, screens mediate bodies. In Xiaolei Tian’s video Thirty Six Point Five Cenidgree Secnery, 2011, computer-generated breasts, hands, and other bulbous masses of flesh result in a hypnotic kaleidoscope of twisted forms. The screen opens possibility beyond itself, but, as Gilles Deleuze suggests, when we look up, the world tends to creep in.
Prabhavathi Meppayil’s second solo exhibition in New Delhi reflects her curiosity about spatial logics and her interest in using intensive and vernacular processes. A descendant of goldsmiths, Meppayil uses the tools and techniques of the craft to trouble the boundary between artist and artisan. Her stark white gesso panels in d sixty one, d sixty, d fifty seven, d sixty two, d fifty six, and d fifty eight (all 2016) almost blend into the walls––the incisions and embedded wires are revealed only as one nears the works. The lines of the delicate metal contrast sharply with the thick mass of substratum through which they are glimpsed, and this creates a songful effect.
One of the works on view here, d fifty five, 2016, is a five-part piece featuring intricate etchings of patterns on gesso—made with a goldsmith's tool, a thinnam—and each unit features a different design. Her engagement with Minimalism is shared with artists such as Nasreen Mohamedi and Agnes Martin, but it is also informed by traditional practices, which prompts the viewer to reflect on the intersection between individual imagination and inherited methods of artmaking.
In d sixty four, 2016, Meppayil coated 144 molds used for making traditional earrings (called jhumkas) with gesso and mounted them on the wall in the form of a grid. From afar, the spherical dip in the middle of the cubes mimics the surficial interventions in the other works, drawing out the artist’s preoccupation with planes and dimensionality. Her attentiveness to geometries, particularly in how depth is interpreted in the gap between painting and sculpture, is also apparent in d sixty three, 2017, a series of 225 gesso blocks arranged as a grid, the cubes uneven and imprecise like the handmade markings on the flat works.
In his latest exhibition, “Ether is all that is,” G. R. Iranna examines the fragility of life through holy ash. His interest in using religious material to ruminate on existential questions was apparent in his recent contribution to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, From Ash to Ash (all works cited, 2016), a giant egg of cinders that references the origin of the cosmos in classical Hindu philosophy. On view in this show are paintings and installations that feature the sacred residue of ancient fire-based rites, alluding to the cyclical inevitability of birth and death and the impermanence of matter, including the self.
The ash-on-paper work Heaven on Water achieves an evocative quality by facilitating a restrained but soulful dialogue between its surface and the faint lines of powder arranged on it. Meanwhile, the three-part series “Ethereal Beauty” offers works that resemble complexly patterned carpets in the form of singed ash-on-paper tapestries as well as vividly painted blocks of ash; both reiterate a desire to replicate the care and intricacy that characterize rituals. Along with the carpet, other idioms and media from Iranna’s oeuvre that recur in this exhibition are arboreal motifs and the tarpaulin base on which they are rendered—in particular, The Tree Disappeared into Ether and Lofty Tree bring to mind his 2014 New York show “Tempered Branches.”
Apart from the diptych Beautiful Burning Tree, with its silver foil highlights, the most striking piece on display is Loved Ash, in which ash blocks are set into the framework of an old-fashioned mirror, meant to expose the absurdity of vanity and ego in the face of mortality. This earnestness does sometimes go overboard: One work spells out a sentence from the Upanishads in embers, making a fetish out of the eschatological that is almost banal.
What do Charlotte Rampling and William Eggleston have in common? Both can be found in this show of Juergen Teller’s large-format prints. Teller is also seen posing naked on the back of a donkey. In another image, Eggleston, with a cigarette in one hand and a camera around his neck, stands before a pink gorilla, whose gaze he attempts to reciprocate. In a third work, Rampling holds a fox in her hands while sitting barefoot in front of a wall of fair-faced concrete; a pair of shoes lie on a large ashtray beside her. These photographs seem simultaneously casual and staged—and this is classic Teller, just as one knows him from his portraits of other personalities in fashion, music, art, and culture since the early 1990s.
At the heart of this exhibition, however, are not silver-screen greats such as Rampling and artist grandees like Eggleston but rather frogs, countless frogs. More than thirty framed images of green, yellow-orange, brown to black, spotted, speckled frogs, supplied with warts or smoothly glistening, come across as awkward but, in a certain way, at one with themselves. They’re arranged on, with, and around white plates. The seemingly arbitrary hanging of these small-format images supports the multiplicity of the pictured creatures and at first doesn’t allow the search for a typology of frog forms to arise within the viewer. The exhibition space, with its open glass front onto the Yoyogi Park and its extension of the gallery into office spaces, completes the way with which the amphibians join the society of fox, donkey, and gorilla and communicate with the celebrities of this world. But the frogs are the actual stars of the show––every single one of them.
Translated from German by Diana Reese.
No matter how “smart” our objects may now be, we don’t expect them to discern whether they’re used correctly, or if it all. But Iskandar Jalil believes there is such a thing as an ethical pot or vessel: It embodies the maker’s aesthetic ideals and value placed on the medium. A pot made in the right frame of mind would actualize the spiritual dimensions, time, and place of its creation, similar to how a bottle of wine can disclose much about the conditions and influences of its site of origin. Such a theory may carve out a space, in fine art, for studio pottery—a mode of artmaking that has come about only within the last century—cracking a strained boundary between the categories of artist and artisan, one tested by the mid-twentieth-century emergence of modernism’s insistence that art refuse any functionality. Iskandar, a Singaporean artist whose course of practice dovetailed with the ascendancy of the nascent group movement of the Modern Art Society in Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s, initiated the discourse around the intersection of ceramics’ functional underpinnings and modernism’s fascination with the new; here, he presents a survey of works made from that time to the present.
References from decades of extensive travels appear throughout Iskandar’s sculptures, all made from local clay: Vessels are covered in Arabic-Jawi and Roman text and incorporate influences such as Japanese shibui and wabi-sabi, while his signature blue glazes are inspired by land- and skyscapes across Scandinavia. Certain works such as the undated (Untitled) (Mangkuk Tingkat)—a stack of stoneware tiffin boxes—and (Untitled) Water Container, 1999, can fulfill what are apparently their utilitarian purposes. However, many others serve more poetic means, including the ongoing, undated “Culture” vessels, a series of totemic pillars, each one too narrow for the wooden ladles that crown them; Untitled (Mother and Child), 2004, a pair of codependent, multitextured donut-shaped azure moldings that prop each other up; and the undated amorous S curve of She, a vertical stoneware strip that folds back in a slight, provocative recline and is adorned with a single delicate broach sphere. We may no longer employ ceramicists to make dishes; these humble forms transcend tugs of obligation.
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.
Since 2007, Yao Jui-chung has been developing a distinct style of shanshui painting that challenges the literati’s cultural authority on the genre. Using ink pens, acrylic paint, and gold leaf on thick handmade paper, the artist emulates the motifs and compositions of master landscape works but instills them with a set of aesthetic principles that subvert literati dogma. While traditional landscape painting values simplicity, restraint, and the mediation of the painterly subject’s pure essence, Yao’s shanshui celebrates decor, minimizes negative space, and features a fleshy mountain style that resembles anatomic muscle tissues (reminiscent of his 1997 figurative drawings). In this exhibition, he presents twenty-four new shanshui paintings that continue to imbue classic landscape forms with absurd and whimsical sensibilities.
The paintings hang on color-coordinated walls, creating a lighthearted undertone that complements the show’s overarching narrative theme of daily leisure. The central piece of the exhibition, Eight Days a Week, 2016, is a panorama of forested land in which a dozen influential members of Taiwan’s arts circle—all friends—play mah-jongg, bathe in saunas, and perform other idle activities. In an adjacent room, the series “Baby,” 2017, presents vignettes from the artist’s family life, composed to resemble the silhouettes of his daughter’s favorite cartoon characters. While it is not unusual to depict idyllic life in traditional shanshui painting, Yao’s confessional portrayal of middle-class pleasures exemplifies a daring shift in his artistic temperament. Better known for his conceptual interrogations of historical grand narratives, he has created a new body of work that intimately reveals himself as both an artist and a family man, as someone who finds inspiration in cool, intellectual provocation and domestic comforts. Through the act of drawing, Yao honestly mediates on paper the possible union between art and life.
Connected Vessels, 2016, a work in Micha Ullman’s current exhibition, features water flowing through linked containers placed within an iron structure that resembles a table or the tree of spheres from the Kabbalah. Manifesting the law of equilibrium, the water gradually erodes the metal, creating reddish rust. Every so often, the sculpture requires refilling because of dehydration and the creation of this corrosion.
Ullman, a wizard of Israeli art, is best known for his Land art, particularly his dramatic static structures that have a strong presence but that are sometimes almost invisible. For Land Exchange, 1972, he dug three cubic feet of earth from his town and exchanged it with the same from a neighboring Arab village. For Water, 1996, he installed two sewer lids imprinted with his hand, one in West Jerusalem and the other in East Jerusalem. For the most part, equilibrium is maintained under the surface in his works, whereas above ground there is human strife and conflict. In this show, balance is brought above ground, creating a tension between conflict and its resolution. The water, both still and coursing, produces an equilibrium that is never perfect, forever held in expectation.
Apart from Connected Vessels,, there are two more metal and water sculptures, as well as a series of delicate water drawings produced like photograms, for which Ullman placed objects on paper and then let water trace their bodies and contours. Ullman likes to describe himself as a photographer, throwing sand on people and objects that are then removed, leaving their mark. In this case it is not sand but water that works like light on paper. As in early photography, the water drawings require a long exposure, registering the passing of time as well as the pendulum of memory and forgetfulness. His body of work heightens our attentiveness to transience as well as to the fact that transience itself testifies to the eternal.
A sharp intimacy suffuses Dubai-based Pakistani artist Raja’a Khalid’s show like the warmth of late afternoon sunlight. Reflections bounce off the iridescent automotive-paint-coated panels of High Noon (all works 2016), where tangerine gives way to deep orange, and Santa Barbara, which itself is seafoam but casts onto the floor a lurid green. Perhaps donning the US military-issue Oakleys set on a dune-textured altar of a shelf in sun and sand worship, or the bomber jacket, Solaro, would shield one from the light. Made from the titular suiting fabric, the latter’s underside is shot through with red, which colonialists believed would protect their pale skins from harsh tropical rays.
Two photographs of a bonding ritual that happens here each summer lie at the heart of the exhibition. When falcons begin to molt, they are blindfolded, leashed, and placed in a protective tent. After a week or so, they are untethered; after another, their hoods are removed and they see each other for the first time. The acculturation process is designed to slowly build trust and feels like a mirror of Dubai’s complex demographics, where only twelve to eight percent of residents are citizens.
Local references abound in Tom Ford Oud Wood, an industrial diffuser spewing out the sultry musk of the perfume, and in the plasticized Palm Leaves that are the primary flora of shopping malls, as well as in the diamanté car decal Buraq, which shows a winged horse with the face of a woman from Islamic mythology. Yet Khalid reaches beyond the easy seduction of Gulf imagery to tap into the region’s underlying economy. The UAE’s failed transmutation of Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism into Pan-Arabism and the emotional textures of never belonging are captured here, like a single drop of sweat trickling to a stop halfway down your face.
In Sophia Al-Maria’s exhibition “EVERYTHING MUST GO,” the Gulf is presented not as a poreless luxury or futurist rendering, but rather as a teeming hypermarket. The artist mines a territory of frenzied consumerism similar to that depicted in her powerful installation at the Whitney last fall, yet here the dark, eschatological terror of that show is sanitized, and images of the Gulf are sold back to it, with markup.
The thing about Gulf futurism is that it requires some distance from its source. It’s most seductive abroad, tending toward banality when reimported. Looped in a deadened side room, without the accompanying sandy tangle of wires, old devices, and shrapnel included in its Whitney iteration, the video Black Friday, 2016, suffers this fate. More exciting are the newer works on view, where Black Friday’s threatened kitsch becomes a full-throated embrace of camp, with a deliciously pulpy B-movie feel. In the installation Litany, 2016, a pileup of shopping carts overflowing with torn value packs of local childhood snacks are embedded with cell phones looping lo-fi clips that seem to scream in a Munchian visual pun. In particular, the inclusion of several different kinds of Iranian-origin pofaki-style corn puffs nods to regional geopolitics and nationalist branding exercises.
The installation is encircled by a 2017 series with the same title, comprising ninety-nine digital prints featuring stills from Litany’s videos overlaid with glowing phrases culled from beauty packaging. The number nods to the psychology of pricing, yet also alludes, somewhat sacrilegiously, to the ninety-nine names of Allah in Islam. The words could function as magnetic poetry, rearranged to form new compound products—a Post-Truth Plumper promising a Silky Smooth finish, perhaps, or maybe a Micellar Water that is also Mattifying and Heart-Ossifying. The lights are too bright and the bargains too dear, and everything is exactly as it should be.
Dove-gray walls have an unexpectedly soothing effect in this exhibition of Sara Rahbar’s disembodied bronze appendages—eight sets of life-size cast arms and legs, and one head, displayed on the floor, on plinths, and weightlessly hanging from walls—with one lone flag in the corner. The lack of more forceful white walls doesn’t appear gimmicky; instead, it provides an emotionally neutral base for Rahbar’s confrontational, discomforting references to unspecified acts of violence. But the aggressiveness is just a front. The subtle juxtapositions employed discreetly temper every harsh note with an element of fragility: The clenched fists and curled toes indicate torture, fear, discrimination, and lack of safety, but paired with unfurled fingers and outstretched arms trying to wrangle the feet back together, the longing for salvation is unmistakable.
Despite the indestructible medium, paradoxical tone, and (literal) cold shoulder, the urge to touch these works is strong. This push and pull embodies the complexity of vulnerability, which Rahbar further broaches through two modes of phenomenological identification—the universality of suffering, and shared limbs and mannerisms—plunging you into unwelcome memories and acknowledgements of global states of anguish with bleak resolutions. Here, the significance of the American flag-like Flag 53, Shelter Me, 2016, rears its head. A meticulous, orderly assemblage on tarp of objects Rahbar carefully collected—such as a knife, bullet belts, and nametags abandoned by soldiers after war, as well as coins and Bedouin-style metal jewelry—bluntly outlines the items and cyclical conditions that sustain, define, and destroy humankind. While Rahbar’s theme may not be fresh, this wound is, and it needs a healing touch.
For the better part of the past five years, Jorge González has been working on several related projects that focus on recovering vernacular material culture and knowledge in Puerto Rico. In “359 Days in 19 Months,” González draws from pedagogy, ethnology, botany, design, and architecture to bring forth an installation that layers modern and indigenous references. His work is in dialogue with that of Henry Klumb, a German architect who settled in Puerto Rico in 1944, and ArKlu, the design firm Klumb established with Stephen Arneson. Many of González’s pieces were made in collaboration through the Trade School, an itinerant workshop initiative he founded in 2013, and with several artisans around Puerto Rico.
Panels of dry cattail leaves line one side of the gallery space, evoking Arawak huts, while the woven cattail mats that cover half the floor emphasize that the once ubiquitous object is now part of a growing catalogue of disappearing craft knowledge. The gallery is completely engulfed by the smell of cattail leaves, and visitors are encouraged to take off their shoes to walk around or lie down on the rugs, a particularly pleasant sensory experience.
The title of the exhibition refers to a ceramic stamp used by the Taíno peoples that was interpreted by ethnographer Pedro Escabí as an Antillean calendar. The moon cycle is implicit throughout the show, evoked through photographs of recorded archaeological finds. Ancient agricultural astrology practices dictate that the cattails must be cut only under a new moon. Here, González has achieved new heights with his projects, connecting improbable agents in an ever-growing network of knowledge exchange and renewal.
Since launching their couture house in 1998, Dutch fashion designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren—also known as Viktor & Rolf—have been lauded for their imaginative womens-wear lines and runway performances that so often directly respond to the conventions of the high-fashion industry. Here, over forty of Viktor & Rolf’s most iconic haute-couture and ready-to-wear pieces are displayed on headless mannequins standing on low-lying plinths. Interspersed with these displays are miniature versions of their designs on porcelain dolls, one of which is a robot that walks, waves, and turns on a scaled-down runway. Placed in front of wallpaper that features thousands of the duo’s design sketches spanning their entire career, standout pieces include a gray wool trench coat featuring a three-dimensional rendering of the word “NO” protruding from under its collar, and a fanned black pleated dress suspended from an aluminum harness with small runway spotlights and working speakers attached, intended to be mounted on the shoulders of some unfortunate model.
Presented in beautiful lighting, Viktor & Rolf’s “Russian Doll” collection, 1999–2000, comprises nine jute haute-couture dresses that are as much nostalgic remnants of the duo’s 1999 autumn launch as they are fresh displays of impeccable craftsmanship. (For its inaugural unveiling, the designers themselves dressed the doll-like model Maggie Rizer as she stood on a rotating platform: Rizer began the performance of sorts outfitted in a frayed burlap slip before gradually being transformed into a heavy haute-couture sculpture.) While one premise of the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition—that fashion can be art—seems a symptom more of status anxiety than of serious inquiry, it is Viktor & Rolf’s technical proficiency that resonates most strongly here, transforming borderline gimmicks into exquisite experiments with line, shape, color, and volume.
Kylie Banyard’s previous work mostly consists of nostalgic scenes from American counterculture, focusing less on historic pioneers than on alternative forms and technologies connected to radical visual practice in the 1960s and 1970s. Comprising four framed paintings and five painted banners, this exhibition sees the artist transform her typically muted creative environments into sites of joyful contemplation. Using black-and-white photographs as source material, which were taken at Black Mountain College between 1933 and 1957 and which Banyard found online, she has concentrated not on the celebrated male artists of the famed art school but on its female cohort, many of whom are unidentified. For instance, Anni #1 (all works 2017) is a sparsely painted portrait of textile artist and printmaker Anni Albers absorbed at her loom, and Ruth shows the under-recognized sculptor Ruth Asawa on her back, tending to one of her tubular wire pieces. In all the works here, Banyard employs appropriation to great effect, enlivening her sources through careful color combinations and subtle erasures.
Particularly in the large-scale paintings, Banyard’s enthusiasm for her subjects is obvious, portraying teachers and students working together, including on the preliminary construction of an early version of one of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes (Group work) and in a photography class held in a cabbage patch (Photography and Cabbages). Suggesting that the job of all good art schools is to foster a community of artists to engage in serious play, the show reminds us that process-based, interdisciplinary, and communitarian ideals became central to fine-arts education in the second half of the twentieth century, setting a laudable standard that seems increasingly out of reach today.
A glass box with a concrete column at its center is flanked by two windowed walls—this is the Brutalist-style space that hosts the most recent site-specific installation by Biljana Jancic, an artist who creates compositions that respond to the architectural features of a given environment. Surface Tension, 2017, uses projections and reflections, made with light and duct tape, to explore this cubic space. Plants and shadows of a louver extend over the central white wall. Combined with those of visitors, the shadows seem natural, as if coming from the distant brise-soleil of the courtyard, but they are the byproduct of a film projected in two channels. This compelling optical illusion leads to an ambiguous atmosphere: an intermediate space between indoors and outside.
Emerging from these projected shutters and expanding across the concrete floor is a thick line of flat stripes made with bright-silver aluminum tape. This intersects with another type of tape that marks in gray the space’s interaction with light, while a line of blue tape emerges from a corner to cross the entire gallery floor and then climb up one wall to trace the surfaces of the outdoor stairs. Jancic’s enveloping installation plays with form, materials, and physical experience, making viewers conscious of the transitional dynamics and features of this site. A storm of lines that has as its eye a column witnesses the repeated modular elements and crossed relations that occur within.