Country Pursuits: Hauser and Wirth

The usual summer lull affecting the art world didn’t apply this year in rural England. That contemporary art has landed firmly in the old market town of Bruton in Somerset (about 2 hours’ drive southwest from London) does not come as a huge surprise; preceding it are the likes of fashion and film as rich, privileged, creative types up sticks from London to seek solace and crumbling stone in the English countryside. The fashion designer Phoebe Philo is there, as is the artist/filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood; Madonna and Guy Ritchie used to live not far away, and Sting’s mansion is in a neighbouring county. Band-members and models are amongst those chasing organic fare and cider in the area—not least after British Vogue devoted seven pages to Bruton in its August issue.(1) “Right now there’s no place like home,” declared Conde Nast Traveller under “Destinations to Watch” this year.(2)

For one, the ex-Notting Hill restaurateur Catherine Butler and her husband Ahmed Sidki, a furniture designer, opened At The Chapel in the high street in 2008. This hotel-cum-bakery and restaurant is now all the rage, and is generally seen as having kicked off the move towards Somerset. Bruton “reminds me of Notting Hill in the early days”, Butler told The Times newspaper. (3)

And so to contemporary art. Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the married team behind international gallery Hauser and Wirth (branches in New York, London and Zurich), have lived in Bruton with their children since 2007. In 2009, they purchased a dilapidated farmhouse with land and outbuildings on the outskirts of the town. “Hauser and Wirth Somerset,” as it is now known, opened in mid-July.

“We loved what we saw. And then this project fell in our lap,” Iwan Wirth told the FT about finding Durslade Farm (4), a characterful 18th-Century property built from light brown local stone. After years of work, and surely a huge investment, the farm now incorporates five gallery spaces of varying size (from a sequence of low, pitched-roofed rooms to a large barn and a single “white cube”-style space that would befit a large London gallery), covering a total area of 2,483 sqm. These galleries sit around a central courtyard, and retain names attached to their former uses—the Threshing Barn, the Cart Shed, the Workshop, the Pigsty.

Open six days a week with free admission, they will be host to a program of major solo and group exhibitions the first of which, currently on display, are “GIG”, a robust, memorable show by the British artist and Royal Academician Phyllida Barlow and “Open Field”, a retrospective and outdoor installation by Piet Oudolf, who most famously designed the landscaping and planting for the High Line redevelopment in New York. His floral concept for the meadow at Durslade Farm will open to the public in September this year. In addition, the farm site is peppered with large outdoor sculptures by artists including Subodh Gupta, Paul McCarthy, Martin Creed (a giant white neon work pinned to the farmhouse reads “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT”) and Louise Bourgeois (the indefatigable “Spider” sculpture of 1994).

But this is not all. In the sort of PR-friendly community spirit that is the darling of contemporary British politics and which helps make the cultural and tourism industry the fastest growing sector in areas like Somerset, Hauser and Wirth’s activities extend to numerous outreach and education programs. To quote the Somerset gallery director Alice Workman: “Hauser & Wirth Somerset is committed to the local community and supports, collaborates and works in partnership with many local institutions, businesses and organizations. Its founders Iwan and Manuela Wirth live locally and are patrons of a number of charities.” The gallery hopes to engage different audiences with “a subsidised education programme, a garden, restaurant and extensive events programme, as well as talks and seminars about topics that are not directly related to the art world like gardening, food and the countryside.”

Showing rather more charisma, Iwan Wirth is enraptured about the project. “To live where you work, eat what you grow and share it with your friends: How much better can it get?” he asked the FT.(6) He calls the project “a joint effort,” describing the involvement of American artist Roni Horn, for example, in the architectural re-design of the farm buildings (“She removed the window from one of the spaces, which was a key change”)(7).

Adjacent to the entrance area with its book and souvenir shop, The Roth Bar & Grill at Durslade is run by Catherine Butler from At The Chapel. The bar is itself a site-specific art installation made by the son and grandson of Dieter Roth. Punters can gaze upon works by Berlinde de Bruckere, Henry Moore and the late Jason Rhoades while grazing on organic meat produced by Durslade farm, home-made cakes, smoothies and the like. The butter is churned on site, and we are told the restaurant is booked out a week in advance every Friday night. On the menu at Durslade, then, is an unusual marriage proposal between titan art dealers (heavily entwined with a voracious international art world circuit) and a distinctly non-urban, hands-on local environment (albeit now host also to a posse of celebrities). It is a privileged union, but one that it is difficult to be cynical about. The estimated footfall for the site is 40,000 visitors per year.(5)

The next solo exhibition at the farm will be by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist whose witty, colorful, sensual, wheeling videos, often focused on plants and bodies, are the perfect choice. The artist spent a year working in Bruton where the gallery also has residency space. “We’ve had three residencies already that have all been quite different,” says Workman, “Pililotti Rist came from Switzerland with her son, who went to the local primary school. Then we had Guillermo Kuitca, who worked at the farm for five weeks in Summer 2013 with a very specific purpose to paint the dining room in the farmhouse as an installation piece. When he left, he said he had had more energy while working here than he had for years.” The idea is for artists to benefit from the rural surroundings and involve themselves with the local community, though Workman emphasises that “The residencies do not have any prescribed outcomes”. The British artist Mark Wallinger has just begun a residency there.

Thus is a more comprehensive occupation of this rural hangout by Hauser and Wirth difficult to imagine. It is difficult also not to look forward to one’s next visit to this exuberant new spot. The Durslade farm site is both inviting and sophisticated, ostensibly combining rustic character with mature artistic content and efforts towards audience engagement. It marks a valid—though not entirely novel—step for contemporary art display and experience in the UK.

(1) British Vogue, August 2014 Edition.
(2) “Top Ten Destinations to Watch in 2014”, Conde Nast Traveller, no date, accessed August 25, 2014,
(3) Damian Whitworth, “Bruton? It’s like Notting Hill in the early days”, The Times, August 4, 2014, accessed August 25, 2014
(4) Griselda Murray Brown, “Art Gallery Hauser and Wirth sets up a Space in a Somerset Farm”, Financial Times, June 13, 2014, accessed August 25, 2014,
(5) Sally Shalam, “Hauser and Wirth Somerset…the next Guggenheim?”, The Guardian, March 21, 2014, accessed 25 August, 2014,
(6) Griselda Murray Brown, “Art Gallery Hauser and Wirth sets up a Space in a Somerset Farm”, Financial Times.
(7) Idem.

Read it on Randian.


09 2014

A Room Not of One’s Own (Art Review, Sept 2014)

The Chinese art scene continues to be commercially led, with very little institutional support or a culture of artists’ residencies, for example. At the same time, the pressure on artists to produce (often new) work for exhibitions and in response to successive curatorial demands contends with the status of the studio as a place for self-contained process and contact with one’s self and ideas – and not necessarily with an end product in mind. Some artists have expressed concern that studio practice in its own right is becoming compromised due to such outside pressures.

A Room Not of One’s Own, however, does not present studio practice relative to the structure of the art world (whether as a critique, or otherwise), but in the wider frame of urban space as conditioned and constructed by the political climate – in short, as a form of private space shaped unavoidably by its surrounding context. Being broadly concerned with space and the individual, the exhibition press release asserts the studio as a powerful site of daily life and expression; what happens there is a process that itself amounts to a political stance by virtue of being carried out by individuals in their chosen environment. The title is a pessimistic adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), thus setting up an opponent and project of resistance for each artist featured here.

As one might expect, the works on show make relatively modest claims. They are born, for example, of scrutiny, conversations, stuff collected or left over, curiosity, solitude, sharing (with another artist), voyeurism, triviality and cognisance. The exhibition scene is dim and cluttered with video screens, installations, suspended cameras and imagery affixed to the walls, which have been painted black.

The most obviously political work here is arguably Liang Ban’s Supper video (2014), for which the artist asked a friend who had recently left prison to recreate a prison meal for them in the studio. In a mockery of freedom and, perhaps, the luxury of being an artist in a self-chosen cell, they are seen eating this humble repast together. Not far off, photographs of Zhao Zhao – an artist who has actually been imprisoned for short periods of time by the authorities (principally for his connection with Ai Weiwei) – show him sardonically painting the studio walls black with the lights turned out.

On a lighter note, young performance artist Li Binyuan’s videos offer compelling entertainment. His Studio Diary video series (2014) records various witty vignettes conjured from daily existence and improvisation. The best of these, One Afternoon, watches him light a fuse beneath his own feet and wait for the explosion. Similarly futile but slower-burning, Fan Xi resolves to plant grass in the floor of her studio – a process that becomes ever more absurd as the concrete floor resists tools and effort, and the sound of destruction deepens.
Hoarding and reuse are addressed by Liang Shuo and Shi Jinsong, respectively. Liang’s Collection of Dregs (2014) shows all the things he has picked up over the years, while Shi attempts to make use of display cabinets left over from a previous exhibition – The Physical Way (2014) suggests that, if fitted with air conditioning, they might be used as temporary accommodation by visiting friends. A telephone number is provided for those who might be interested.

Elsewhere around the show, one finds a benign robotic installation by Xin Yunpeng that entails a moving badminton net propelled by vacuums (20140626, 2014), videos of minute insect-action in corners of the studio by Yang Guangnan (2014.6.5, 2014) and a zany performance video by Ye Funa in which the artist’s friends parade before a green screen adorned with wigs and artificial flowers (A Room of My Thought, 2014).

Overall, A Room Not of One’s Own in practice is less grave than its title suggests. The majority of the pieces here are charged less with forms of resistance one might call overtly ‘political’ than with more personal and quirky, or even lighthearted sentiments. Whether or not this gives an accurate picture of the artists’ real practice and preoccupations, the artists at least appear content to deliver such an image of themselves and their work in this exhibition.


Still from Li Binyuan, “One afternoon”, video, 2011


09 2014

Minsheng and AICA Announce IAAC

AICA (the International Association of Art Critics) and Shanghai Minsheng Museum have announced a new annual prize. The International Awards for Art Criticism (IAAC) are directed at writers from anywhere in the world, writing either in Chinese or English about any exhibition of contemporary art held between 1 January and 30 September 2014. There is no age limit.

Hosted and organised by Shanghai 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum (M21) and sponsored primarily by Minsheng Bank, the award is held in partnership with the Royal College of Art in London and in association with AICA. The judging panel for the first edition of the prize is as follows: J.J. Charlesworth (UK), associate editor, ArtReview; Carol Lu (PRC) curator, art critic and writer; Karen Smith (UK), art historian, executive director, OCAT, Xi’an; Richard Vine (USA), managing editor, Art in America; Rachel Withers, lecturer and contributor, ArtForum International; Yi Ying (PRC),art historian and art critic. The First Prize is 50,000 RMB plus a fully-funded two week residency in Shanghai or London in Spring 2015. Two second prizes – one each, for an essay in Chinese and in English – will consist of a fully funded travel bursary for a two-week residency in Shanghai or London, also in the Spring.

The award winners will be announced immediately after the final adjudication of entries on 22nd November 2014.

Read it on Randian


09 2014

Frieze Begs Questions in Beijing

(Text co-authored with Randian co-Editor Liang Shuhan).

On Saturday, CAFAM was host to an afternoon with Frieze magazine, whose representatives (co-Founder Matthew Slotover, plus a VIP and media management entourage) have also visited Hong Kong and Shanghai on this trip.

The aim is to salute the arrival of Frieze publishing in China. The magazine will be disseminating its voice through the Chinese social networks Sina Weibo and Weixin (WeChat). In entering the Chinese forum, Frieze follows in the footsteps of fellow British art magazine Art Review; but whereas the latter produces a print biannual print edition entirely in Chinese, Frieze will – at least for now – stick to online networks for the distribution of its content.

The afternoon began with a presentation by Matthew Slotover on the origins of the magazine, which he co-founded in his early 20s in 1991 with Amanda Sharp, specifically to serve those contemporary British artists he felt were not being talked about in print. Frieze published the first interview with Damien Hirst, who was then conceiving of his infamous shark in formaldehyde work (“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, 1991). Slotover’s talk went on to introduce Frieze d/e, the German edition of the magazine, and to explain the advent and development of Frieze art fair, which now has 3 separate editions – 2 contemporary fairs in London and New York, and Frieze Masters.

At the close of his presentation, a few questions came slowly from the audience of local journalists filling the CAFAM auditorium. Audience members were interested to know “Why now?”, and why via social networks rather than in print, when Frieze is clearly established as a “serious” art publication. Slotover’s responses emphasised that this entry into China should be not a token, but a meaningful gesture; Frieze, he said, is trying to be very strategic with what they do here and, as an owner-managed organisation, the company is “choosy” about its activities. Brief introductions by VIP and media relations managers closed the initial presentation.

During an ensuing panel moderated by Frieze Contributing Editor Colin Chinnery and including Phil Tinari, Wan Jie, Xu Bing, Cao Dan, Dong Bingfeng, Wang Min’an and Wang Yin, broad and pertinent ideas relating to the issue of publishing on art and across cultural and linguistic borders were raised. Prominent amongst these were questions (mainly from Xu Bing) concerning the relative presentation and experience of contemporary art. Xu urged Frieze to be very sensitive to their potential Chinese readership, recognising their innovative capacity. This is because he sees a culture of strict deduction in logic in Western interpretation, whereas Chinese mind sets tend towards the more intuitive – in short, less “serious” – simple and direct understanding. Taking on a similar idea about comprehension – specifically of the sort of philosophical texts is experienced in translating – Wang Min’an focussed on philosophy. Wang posed the question: Why were contemporary artists of the late ’80s and early ’90s so enthusiastic about philosophy? They even talked about philosophers who were unfamiliar to professors in Chinese universities at the time, such as Charles Bourdieu. (He did not, however, explore the reason for this; perhaps the more interesting question is: Why are artists not more engaged with philosophy now?).

Wang Yin, more simply, called for very clear positions in the magazine on what it is discussing. Cao Dan, Executive Publisher of LEAP magazine and The Art Newspaper’s Chinese edition, had practical comments to make about the changes in how people read and digest content nowadays; the readership is there, but their access and style has changed.

Chinnery was quick to emphasise that Frieze must not simply “helicopter in” content and writers from abroad. There is a distinct need to adapt to the local context in China, its intellectual environment and realities. This was a point echoed by UCCA Director Phil Tinari, in whose experience artists are trying to answer the question “Can there be a globalized discourse on contemporary art?”, and can this traverse boundaries?

Summing up the panel, Chinnery made two main points. First, about the importance of misconception and misunderstanding: we do not need to communicate in the same context, and translations can vary; misconception, he suggested, can in fact play an important role in exchange on contemporary art. Secondly, in order to be practical and to strike a balance in cultural terms, Frieze must face and understand the reality in China.

Randian’s Editors’ remarks:

Art and publishing have a complex and deep relationship; simply by looking at artists’ bookshelves, for example, one could trace another art history. Ten years ago, every Chinese artist owned a book by Chen Danqing; artists shared Chen’s hostile attitude to the presence of English language tests in Chinese art education. But during the ‘80s, artists were apt to read Nietzche, Bergerson and Sartre. Through the lens of what they read, then, one might reflect on artists’ self-image and developing role in cultural life.
A number of foreign art media sources have now entered the Chinese sphere – companies – Artforum, Artinfo, The Art Newspaper, and now Frieze. We hope these sources will not merely provide reportage, but prove themselves to be integrated catalysts for new directions in contemporary culture.

Read it on Randian.


09 2014

COS Magazine interview: Leo Xu


More than Beijing or Hong Kong, Shanghai is the creative epicentre of Asia’s booming art economy. But even the bustling megacity has its serene quarters. In a residential pocket of Shanghai’s monied French Concession, the 32-year-old gallerist Leo Xu goes about the business of advancing contemporary art in China. Whether he’s placing climbable art in a shopping mall or allowing artists to mess with his website, he promotes work that has something contemporary art gallerists aren’t always known for: a healthy sense of humour. Leo eschews the term ‘gallery’, claiming he’s doing so much more than running an ATM for art. We converse on such subjects as we descend from his office on the third floor at Leo Xu Projects and step into the damp, fragrant afternoon for a fast-paced tour of the neighbourhood.

Iona: I love your shoes. The vivid blue panels on your brogues match the print of your shirt. What are they?

Leo: I designed them.

I: You designed them?

L: Yes. I’m not a shoe fanatic, but I have friends who design shoes, and I’ve also had the chance to work with a couple of brands, so my collection has been growing recently.

I: What is more important to you in shoes: comfort or style?

L: Shoes have to be comfortable and walkable. I’m a volleyball player in my secret life.

I: Really? I didn’t know that. Where shall we go?

L: Let’s turn left out of the gallery towards Wukang Road. I really love these old lane houses and the beautiful London plane trees overhead.

I: There’s a certain kind of gentrification going on in this particular area, the French Concession. I guess you and your gallery are part of it. How do you feel about that?

L: It’s exciting! On one hand it’s a little bit sad to see history disappear, but on the other hand it’s great to witness this kind of upgrade on a scale that you don’t find in New York or London. It’s like building a new model of the city for the 21st century. I think this also explains why Spike Jonze shot his latest film, Her, here in Shanghai – because it already looks like a city from the future. That’s what struck me when I walked out of the cinema in Pudong after seeing Star Trek and saw all these gigantic buildings like the IFC tower. Shanghai just looks like a sci-fi city, and it’s becoming more and more interesting.

I: That probably means you have to adapt a lot.

L: You have to adapt, but I also think you have to actively explore and engage with the past. When I moved back here after living in Beijing for a couple of years, I felt there was something in Shanghai that I really missed out on in terms of public discourse. Shanghai is a fusion city, a mixture of East and West. Look at how these art deco buildings live in total harmony with the ones built by the Chinese, who were a minority in the French Concession.

I: How did you get to open a gallery?

L: I studied as an artist and I worked as a photographer, but I got bored. At some point I got the opportunity to work with the artist Xu Bing, and through him I encountered a number of curators. I found curating a very interesting and groundbreaking discipline. It’s so all-encompassing, the way it combines scenography, management, administration, sociability, knowledge of art history and working with artists, pushing the limits of different disciplines and blurring boundaries. I worked for galleries in Beijing and abroad for a while, and then I opened my own gallery in 2011.

I: What’s the story behind your space? It’s quite linear but also intimate.

L: Before I moved in, it had been the office of a company. It looked quite shabby, but I thought it had the right dimensions for presenting something visually. It has long walls and a very interesting central staircase. It reminded me of a smaller-scale version of the Neues Museum in Berlin.

I: I often prefer smaller galleries. In Beijing, for example, you sometimes feel as if you’re drowning in these huge spaces, and artists have had to make giant works just for the sake of filling them.

L: I worked for James Cohan Gallery and Chambers Fine Art before, so I’ve dealt with those two different kinds of spaces – an old warehouse converted into a huge white box and a very delicate art deco house. I felt I had had enough, and I find Shanghai to be really inspiring as a city. I felt the need for a gallery as a laboratory – or a headquarters – rather than as a huge warehouse. I want it to be an engine, a motor for putting my curatorial input across the city. I don’t think my artists produce work just to fit into a white cube. They make work to fit into the city.

I: It’s as if you’re infiltrating, in a way.

L: We work a lot with public spaces – we show works in the open air or in shopping malls – but also on iPhones and iPads and on printed matter. Last year the Argentine artist Leandro Erlich spectacularly infiltrated a shopping centre in downtown Shanghai with the life-sized facade of a traditional Shanghai shikumen-style house on the floor and a mirror suspended overhead. Shoppers could clamber over the model and see themselves reflected in the mirror as if they were climbing the facade, hanging from windows or being suspended upside down. I like my artists and the gallery to engage in the development of the new Shanghai. I like the idea of intervention. Have you seen my website?

I: Oh, yes. It plays a trick on you, faking electromagnetic interference and the sound of a vibrating phone, so that you automatically check your pocket.

L: Right. The Dutch artist Gabriel Lester, who used to live in Shanghai, hacked the site. The inspiration is the buzzing of phones, which makes people nervous and panicky. I love the idea because both Gabriel and I are workaholics – we’re always on the phone. It’s fun for us to see how people react to our prank.

I: Is it this kind of work that leads you to call your gallery Leo Xu Projects rather than, say, Leo Xu Gallery?

L: Yes. I think the most important aspect of this gallery is that we’re a thinking brain. Many people take galleries to be ATMs for art. (laughs) I think what makes us special is that we’re a good partner for artists. We challenge them and we help them.

I: What do your artists need help with?

L: We work with a lot of young artists from Asia, so we’re aware of their age crisis. (laughs) They’re upset by their scarce visibility around the world. Mid-career artists are anxious about the next step, and the more established artists are very aware of their price issues. I always tell people that we’re creating a constellation. One day when we look back on all our work with artists, it will form a big, organic picture. Sometimes they cross paths and you can see the spark.

I: Are there specific tendencies you’re talking about at the moment with your friends and colleagues and artists?

L: Many of my artists are talking about and working with the concept of shanzhai – fake consumer goods. We live in a big city that is a huge market for shanzhai products. If there’s a Starbucks here, you’ll see a ‘Starbanks’ or whatever across the street. People ride around on Apple-branded scooters, even though Apple doesn’t make scooters. But through the shanzhai process something gets reinvented, and it makes things much more democratic, much more accessible for people.

I: You’re wearing a beautifully crisp white shirt covered with a print of hexagons in royal blue. Do you have a tailor close by?

L: Not really. I have my stylist. (laughs) I have friends who work in fashion. It’s good to have friends in fashion!

I: We’re passing a number of small shops and boutiques. Are there any that you particularly like?

L: Actually, I like the newsstands. I enjoy talking to the owners about magazine sales and what titles are popular. Some offer interesting foreign titles that are not supposed to be available or distributed locally; some sell manga and other stuff. Some vendors have their own profound and peculiar understanding of publication and press, which I love to hear about. And I love seeing all the kitsch cover designs.

I: How about shops in this area you don’t like and wish weren’t there?

L: Oh yes, these touristy boutiques that sell Chinese designs – classic qipao dresses made for Westerners. They’re everywhere in the French Concession.

I: Is there anything particular that you notice as we walk along?

L: Misinformation. Shanghai is composed of many different people and numerous languages and dialects – it’s more complicated than people think. Love, affection, prejudice, hatred – this causes a lot of interesting misunderstandings. I love the idea of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. You can truly feel lost here, and I love being lost.

I: Are you a morning person or an evening person?

L: I’m an evening person.

I: I know this feeling in cities – at night, everything is quieter.

L: At night I think I turn into some other person. I find inspiration and am stimulated to write. I’m good at communicating and reaching people, and then when you work with me on email, you cannot tell where I am! People in New York think I’m there because I answer emails right away, but I have the same with people in Europe. So they’re kind of confused.

I: You must need very little sleep.

L: Yes.

I: Where can you be found most often when not at home or at the gallery?

L: Out on the streets. After many years of being a photographer, I’m still addicted to the habit of walking the streets. Nowadays, I’m more and more interested in visiting different places – seeing the design of the spaces and knowing about the people and their stories. I go to DVD shops, bookstores, design boutiques, teahouses, residential buildings and factories, measuring every inch. I’m a scanner. I want to stay within the city, alone with everybody.

I: You’re happy to be in Shanghai, then?

L: I think being in China is one of the biggest luxuries I have ever had, and I have to make the most of it. The country is becoming a new laboratory – it’s full of possibilities, good and bad, and it gives you the right to experiment. One should do as much as possible. I’m adventurous. I want to go wild but also keep everything under control.

I: And what are you most wild about at the moment?

L: A preoccupation that I share with my artists, with my architect, writer and filmmaker friends, and with musicians who I work with is this idea of the future city. And the future of Shanghai’s sexed-up art scene more specifically. At the moment, this city has at least six art fairs, a handful of supersized museums, a fast-growing gallery scene and a booming creative community. Where is it all heading?

Read it in COS Magazine


08 2014

Qiu Xiaofei Panel Discussion: Paths and Possibilities for Painting

UCCA, Beijing

Panel discussion on artist Qiu Xiaofei 26.6 (1)

Panel discussion on artist Qiu Xiaofei 26.6 (2)

Panel discussion on artist Qiu Xiaofei 26.6 (3)Iona Whittaker

Panel discussion on artist Qiu Xiaofei 26.6 (4)


06 2014

Zhang Hui: Imprints

The most impressive paintings in “Groundless”, the previous exhibition by Zhang Hui at Long March Space, depicted life rings. Isolated from ordinary context, the robustness of these objects—in spite of their smooth, oddly narrow shape—was brought to the fore out of empty (though not insubstantial) painted fields.

If the works in that show were literally “groundless,” the works in this new exhibition “Plaza” have been bestowed again with a sense of environment. A plaza conjures thoughts of display—open, yet fluid space for people and events, a public place supporting and witnessing situations of whatever kind. The idea of theater—always integral to Zhang’s work—is not remote from a plaza, being in many ways a stage upon which action unfolds.

Coupled with this is a certain aura of possession conveyed through the idea of the “blueprint”. It infuses the show, visually, as the color blue—that familiar, powerful tone not unlike Yves Klein’s—which has its own aesthetic attraction for the viewer and, one imagines, the artist. It is used for the ribbon-like depiction of an apartment block (“Blueprint, Second Floor”, 2014), for example, and a scene of a couple being served by an air hostess (“Blueprint, Communication 1”, 2012–13). Blueprint is the title of this leading series in the exhibition, and is explained in the exhibition text in terms of the reality of existence depending on “the machinations and designs of mankind and the subsequent creations to arise from such planning” — a distinctly humanistic perspective, which seems to deny chance.

The feel of this notion across the show can be called possessive for the way this blue hue seems to be in everything; on sawn-off tree stumps in the painting “Blueprint, Accident” (2014), blue is revealed inside the trunk; in “Blueprint, Spread” (2014) and “Blueprint, footprints” (2012-14), it covers—even replaces—the soles of sports shoes. In a much more sinister way, while this blue seems to be inside trees and beneath objects and infilling speech (in a bubble in the exchange with the air hostess), it is also seen on human fingers and palms. Three paintings like this (“Blueprint, Interior” and “Blueprint, Exterior”, both 2012, and “Blueprint, Partial”, 2013) somehow hint at the painter himself as orchestrator, or orchestrated—just as other beings and objects are. Overall, a strange sense of inevitability pervades the works, with the same force among them visible as a color, either hidden inside or otherwise present. Blue itself is a color at the cooler end of the spectrum often interpreted as conveying calm; in this exhibition, it simultaneously evokes passivity and influence in a way that borders on the uncanny.

An artist who began with theater design and used installation as part of the “Post-Sense Sensibility” group before settling on painting, Zhang Hui has consistently explored the layers of reality, finding holes in it. A painting is simply another layer on which things can appear to us and are experienced and explored. Duration, too, is something that intrudes into these newer works. The painting entitled “Blueprint, Solidification” (2014) appears at first simply to show a grid of white rectangles—perhaps a floor or wall. Upon closer or later inspection one sees the outlines of simple figures in a grouping (as of a crowd seen from above) materialize in the milky paintwork. This discovery places the viewer in a state of surprise and involves them and the painting in a mutual time frame, where recognition (of further content: the figures) develops and is confirmed. Surprise is theatrical, and the time of the realization plays out in its own way, also. Even as the ribbon-like images of the apartment and airplane scene elsewhere in the Blueprint series might look as if they could blow easily away, so this image instead instills itself, offering more to the viewer if one notices its depth.

Despite the number of works in this exhibition, some paintings deliver a clear sense of their significance where others seem more incidental. The work “Blueprint, Fold” (2012), showing paper outspread after having been crumpled up, is one such work. The piece “Blueprint, Pleasant Sensation” (2009-10, 2013, which mimics a New Year greetings card with a large blue snowflake on it at bottom right and shows a waiter figure comically covered in snow), again, has its roots in the permutations of reality and surface (and, possibly, sardonic humor) that Zhang wishes to go into, yet may not instill itself deeply. Those works which deal more readily with scenes or figuration—rather than articles or objects—are more persuasive in this exhibition, not least because of their more direct link to human action. In them, it seems, Zhang’s case deepens most bravely.

Read it on Randian.

All images courtesy of Long March Space.


06 2014

Canadian Supreme Court Rules in Favour of Artists’ Rights on Fees

In what is an important moment for the rights of artists, the Supreme Court in Canada ruled on May 14th for binding minimum fees for the payment of artists (similar to a minimum wage) at the National Gallery of Canada.
In a perceived conflict between the Status of the Artist Act and the Copyright Act, representative associations CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Font des Artists Canadiens) and RAAV (Regroupement Des Artistes En Arts Visuels) argued for the binding minimum fees, whereas the National Gallery opposed this for taking away the right of the artist to be paid less, if they chose.
The proceedings followed an appeal on behalf of artists which was unanimously approved by the bench. In permitting this appeal, the Court rejected the argument against minimum fees – unusually, after merely oral arguments, a decision was reached immediately.
Of the verdict, President of CARFAC Grant McConnell is quoted as saying “It’s a good day for artists…This is a major victory for all artists in Canada and Quebec.”

Source: CARFAC website

Read it on Randian


06 2014

He An: It’s Forever Not (Art Review, May 2014)

He An
It’s Forever Not
Magician Space, Beijing

This is the fifth in a series of what can be called “architectural” installations by He An since 2010. As direct interventions in a given exhibition space, to date these have involved altered gradients, heights, widths or entry points and infill. The first two works of this kind were painted pure white and kept smooth to appear seamless with the white cube interiors they occupied; more recently, at Top Contemporary Art Centre, Sifang Art Museum and now Magician Space in Beijing (also the site of the first two shows), plaster infused with Chinese ink, rough concrete paving slabs, neon light elements and thin rubber tubes seeping engine oil have comprised the materials.

The consistent themes of He An’s work are urban development, loneliness, dislocation, poetic longing and filmic references and exploring human relationships to architecture in a psycho-physical or emotive vein. The current work is an instance of the latter impulse – the rawness of the installation’s form casts aside the refinement of the earlier interventions in favour of visceral rough surfaces, cracks and leaking fluid. The floor of the gallery has been overlaid with large square concrete slabs; the rubber tubes lie around and protrude between them at random, and watery oil is visible soaking in. In the far right corner, a rectangle of black marble has a small coil of blue neon light on it; barely noticeable is a patch of gloss paint on the white wall, as if it were the reflection of the marble. The ceiling of the main space is now much lower – its surface and lighting replicated as if the whole thing had simply been pulled down. Numbers appear on the walls at divisions between the slabs, though without apparent sequence. The adjacent smaller room of the gallery is now occupied fully by giant blocks around 6 ft high, covered in the ink-stained plaster. A straight vertical crevice between them invites one to peer in, but yields nothing.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

“It’s Forever Not” is a title which aptly evokes a common atmosphere around He An’s work – a distinct statement resting on a broad foundation of negation or want, which in turn is born of the emotional backdrop to his life in China; implicitly, the artist acts somewhat in the manner of a poet, distilling these sensations as those shared by millions. The form of the installation in Beijing is brutalist (to borrow an architectural term) and melancholic in an impassive way. Emotional lack or loneliness translate, conversely, into a filling-in of space (one might suppose, like the will to fulfil oneself). Grey surfaces and wasted liquid might imply unclear zones of human relations – grey areas, definite but unclear.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

Yet there is also a hint of the absurd here – all is not pathos. You are still encouraged to climb onto the raised floor, and the lowered ceiling exactly replicates the original one in what feels something like a game, or virtuoso touch. Despite a landscape of concrete structures, it seems, a certain spirit persists.

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space

He An, “It’s Forever Not”, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Magician Space


05 2014

The Informer: ABHK 2014

Next year, Art Basel Hong Kong will happen in mid-March—a sartorial and navigational godsend for all involved. Those who attempted to fly in early in the week were stymied by the storms, some finding themselves stuck in Guilin, or even on a train from Beijing after flights were cancelled. There were rumors that one Angelina Jolie flew in on Sunday—but these turned out to be just rumors. Buoyed by recent acquisitions, perhaps she was blown off course.

At the fair, the mood among the booths (on walls and wardrobes) was noticeably conservative—a tendency that began last year. Despite the caliber of collectors at the private view, there seemed to have been a slight downturn in glamor for those walking round. Fortunate, perhaps, to save a few fancy togs from the bright red ink that bled off the Art Basel catalog bags onto people’s clothes. A prevalence of European and American Modernist art available (including Picasso and de Chirico), suggests that gallerists are playing it somewhat safe by aiming at less sophisticated collectors from the Asian region. A wonderful exhibition of drawings, painting and sculpture by Giacometti at Gagosian in the Pedder Building cemented this atmosphere. Reports say that the galleries did sell, and weekend sales were pulled up by Indonesian and Singaporean collectors who flew themselves in. Also present were a newly conspicuous cast of rather glib art recruiters, making the 2014 edition also a job-fair, of sorts.

Hairstyles, however, were spectacular. Following the opening, a low fence had been erected beneath the canopy of Gu Wenda’s Encounter project. “United Nations Human Space” (1999–2000)—188 flags fashioned from human hair—was quite some greeting, draped from the ceiling like something monstrous gathered from an enormous drain. The mind boggles at the thought of unsuspecting VIPs, walking scenically beneath, quashed suddenly by fallen mats of dirty follicles. A symbol of “cultural colonialism” (as the artist intended) it would surely have been. It might also have given the art conservators—apparently bored by a want of damaged works – something to do.

Gu Wenda’s Encounters project, “United Nations Human Space” (1999–2000)

Lee Wen’s ping pong table (iPreciation Gallery)

Ping pong was a sure sign of fun both inside and beyond the fair. The installation of a circle of blue table-tennis tables by Singaporean performance artist Lee Wen, brought by iPreciation gallery, was seldom empty of players. Unfortunately, it sounds as if the Lee’s anti-China remarks went down less well on Saturday night. The unrelated Ping Pong bar, in Sai Ying Pun, was the site of the longest parties for those still with legs to dance on after many miles covered along the exhibition aisles.

Most talked about was probably the Absolut Art Bar and Ming Wong’s Lady Gaga performance there, as well as the sheer difficulty of getting in. Queues stretched down the street and zig-zagged into the foyer split into VIP, less-VIP and everybody else. The Informer witnessed a noted institutional director from Beijing trying to argue his way into the bar, having exited the lift into a wall of waiting bouncers. Thwarted, he gave up (inadvertently saving himself from another round of bad cocktails). Not content with waiting in the queue or trying their diplomacy skills with Sutton PR-Suffragettes in the foyer, MAP Office were seen trying to enter through a building under construction down the street. Having got in, one found a decent spread of techno noise throughout the week, ecstatic dancing from Adrian Wong and décor composed of sandbags, weevils (sadly only printed) and video screens, with blood bags of beetroot cocktails to suck on. On the last night, clearly fed up with so much artsy experimentalism, the final DJ opened his laptop at 1am and delighted everyone with a jelly-shaking’‘90s mix.

Elsewhere, Beijing bands propped up the parties, as usual; Carsick Cars invaded Kee Club, and Pet Conspiracy rocked out before hundreds of perspiring revelers and Hong Kong art-lites in a giant, oven-like warehouse in Chai Wan on Friday. The Informer retired to the fish market for beers on a plastic tablecloth with a jovial Li Zhenhua, who should be congratulated for such a successful first Film program alongside the fair, trumping the Conversations and Salon series. Modern Media’s Vernissage after-party was a bust (yet again)—no match for Carsten Nicolai’s Alpha Pulse display and rooftop event on Thursday. The 2014 party trophy must go, however, to Art Basel Executive Director Marc Spiegler who, come 7am on Sunday morning, was still dancing in Club Volar on Lan Kwai Fong.

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Absolut Art Bar in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Designed by Nadim Abbas (photo courtesy of Absolut; credit: Roberto Chamorroa)

Carsten Nicolai performing Alpha | Pulse in front of the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong (Photo by Jessica Hromas / Art Basel)

Art Basel on May 15, 2014 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Xaume Olleros / Art Basel)

Zhan Wang’s work at Eslite Gallery booth