Projecting LA

“The Los Angeles Project”:

UCCA (798 Art District, No. 4 Juxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Bejing 100015), Sept 13 – Nov 9, 2014

The “Los Angeles Project” is not a thematic exhibition, and rightly so. Their shared origin naturally assumes prominence for one’s looking at these seven solo displays. But while “identity” has often proved a troubling word for contemporary art (not least in China)—conjuring inflated or personal questions that cannot be answered clearly, and may even distract from the work itself—it is simpler (and more direct) to see what one might take from this exhibition in the way of pure sensation, rather than something more complicated. What impressions do these shows deliver, individually and collectively, of the creative inclinations with which LA-based artists are working?

The varied impacts of the exhibitions make for a strong experience—without doubt, these works are the product of a different environment. Following a sense of filmic surface conjured by Alex Israel and Kathryn Andrews in the first two rooms, one is plunged into an immersive zone of hyperactive dialogue and sound on a number of video screens by Ryan Trecartin; beds and airline seats in front of them encourage the viewer to sprawl out. Aaron Curry offers a kind of respite with an emptier space occupied by white sculptures daubed with neon orange and yellow—potently reminiscent of twentieth-century surrealist figuration at ease in their strangeness. From here, one could go directly into the room devoted to Matthew Monohan’s distinctly manual sculptures and charcoal drawings (the most “traditional” part of the exhibition), or into a large oblong site of shining urethane obelisks and diffused pigments amassed by Sterling Ruby. The feeling of productive collapse that rises here appears strained and refocused in the work of Kaari Upson. Here, distressed furnishings (carpets and mattresses) and silicon-moulded chairs register the pressure of human contact, both physical and mental, between people and on domestic materials.

The “Los Angeles Project” conveys certain sensations more strongly than others. The first is a sort of deliberate unfaithfulness—or flatness. Alex Israel marks the walls with impenetrable yet seductive mural paintings: isolated instances of palm trees, a director’s chair, a caravan and rubbish bins lined up on a white backdrop. The imagery is at once aesthetically present and attractive, and knowingly absent—just like the stage sets it mimics. As such, the work affects perception in a similar way to film, suspending disbelief even as it engages the eye. In the adjoining room, the comfort—and, one could say, the freedom—of the real is pushed back still further. Kitsch, cold cylindrical sculptures bearing prints of Bozo the Clown are flanked by enormous images of pink-stockinged legs spread down the walls (the seduction scene from The Graduate). Walking through this installation, the viewer might find themselves uncomfortable, thrown in with a repeating cartoon character and giant, overbearing fiction lifted from an erotic film scene. Both directed rather than made by Israel and Andrews themselves, these two shows dispose with art’s expected delight in authenticity. In turn, their effect seems less to encourage than to aggressively place the viewer in relation to their creative processes—keeping one outside, yet seeing, and thereby somewhat vulnerable. The ambience is impersonal, the experience merely received.

Without wishing to draw their work too close together, there are like tendencies to detect also in Aaron Curry and Matthew Monohan’s displays. Although the methods are very different, both work figuratively, here and with a manual, primitive sensibility. For Curry, a sense of touch advances up the walls, where hand and shoe prints and other smudges attest to direct contact and motion. From Monohan’s hard-hewn sculptures (recast in bronze from the foam originals, for example “Column III (The Two Step)”, 2014) and drawings—especially a set of three charcoal figures with limbs detached and ribs and facial features pulled away from naturalism towards a sort of blurred, ritualistic state (the Body Electric series, 2012)—comes a sort of tribal undertone. This is echoed, though not exactly matched, in the abstraction of Curry’s sculptural creatures. Not human or animal—but in imagination, alive—these convey alternate primal echoes that pertain less to language than to the spirits of living, moving bodies. Both shows suggest something of a creative retreat, one imagines, from the artists’ immediate surroundings; they evoke a reaching for creative inheritance, and perhaps history.

But more than postmodern flatness or primal gestures, the strongest impression from this exhibition is one of gainful decrepitude—gainful for the creative work of two of the artists. In Sterling Ruby’s output there lurks a near-messianic ability with gritty, non-traditional (or artificial) and difficult-to-control media—particularly spray paint and dribbled urethane. In this urethane Monumental Stalagmite series (2010-12) and vast cycle of spray-paintings (SP217, 2012), base means become the vehicles for an unusual gothic nobility; their glossy, indolent spikes and murky expanses—looking not unlike waste substances in a final state, or things which accrue underground—nonetheless rise and extend with cathartic energy. A sense of ruin, in this case, thus become uniquely potent. In Kaari Upson’s sculpture, however, the grotesque endures without empowerment, reaching a different though also impressive limit. The silicon-moulded furnishings Upson mounts in a corner or in a red ring, almost sexually (“Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue”, 2014), or places alone on the floor flanked by soiled carpeting speak of undeniable collapse. The crumpled, cringing, soiled skins of the couches appear like symptoms of inexorable demise, as her project intensifies into collapse through over-identification with her subject—the dead man, Larry, on whose story this body of work is based. Regardless of whether their attendant narrative is known, these pieces express expiration.

Against the sensations drawn from these six solo exhibitions, which seem to trace a path through forms of degeneration, empowerment, energy and indifference at the behest of people (the natural world is conspicuously absent), the seventh—Ryan Trecartin’s agitated video installations—feels like a possible index. It is the only place in the exhibition where living people are captured and displayed, and through the skilful barrage of his video works they are revealed as erratic, attention-seeking, uncouth and expectant. The angles of the lens and disturbance of the image seem to imply the mental state of these characters in their digitally compressed lives, where they also watch themselves. Their status as the products and/or producers of content like this seems confused; with an expanded view, one considers too the artistic content of the exhibition as a whole, and the background to its making.

Ultimately, the “Los Angeles Project” is not likely to be an argued exhibition (apart from the obvious prominence of Sterling Ruby’s work which, very strong and centrally positioned, might intimidate the other displays). Rather, the show evades final description because its atmosphere is underpinned by a strange feeling of encroachment. It is a sensation not removed from the progressive myth of LA for those who haven’t been, and confirmed, perhaps, for those that have. It is a sensibility not entirely benign, though definitely productive through the lens of these artists’ work. What is dark or artificial (as evoked by Upson’s corrupted furnishings or Curry’s murals, for example) is not concealed by it; indeed, these are arguably the runners lubricating an impression of steady yet submerged progress—not unlike an infection. A final thought on exiting “The Los Angeles Project” could be of an unclear cycle: environments creating people, people sensationalizing themselves—or creating art and art, in turn, triggering sensations in its audience. Although the original settings and the protagonists for these works remain inaccessible, in this exhibition, their generative power is made plain.


10 2014

Hans Op de Beeck

These are literally “Night Time Drawings” – done alone and after dark, in black and white watercolor, after everyone else had gone home. As such, their tone is perhaps unsurprising. Hung inside a temporary gallery built within Galeria Continua’s factory space (a dark grey carpet requires that the visitors remove their shoes), the drawings show such scenes as moonlit, forested roads stretching into the distance, an urban vista with a metal bridge, a fairground, a woman seen from behind, her tattooed back bare and ocean waves. It is the stuff of rather lonely remembrances or erotic musings, licked with the texture of sea foam and tempered by the stillness of electric light in a landscape; the quality of the drawing is sensitive, at times beautiful. De Beeck’s imagery is also animated in a film, fading in and out to a melancholic soundtrack, in an adjacent space.

The second bulk of the show consists of sculptures at mid-height on the walls—all of them hands engaged in different gestures: one writes, another extends forward holding a bare branch, still another holds out a small plate of berries, and there are pairs of hands cupped as if to hold something precious, or as if their attendant body were reading from a sheet of paper. They emerge flush from the wall, cut off at the forearms, as if like indexes for human contact. As a group, they make for a strange, silent atmosphere. Singled out and sculpted carefully, they are at once proximate and distant, general and intimate. This, indeed, is a sensation pervading the entire exhibition. The selected photographs that are also presented are highly staged: “Vanitas (Variation)”, (2014) in no way belies its backdrop of Northern European painting traditions in the way a scene is composed upon a table complete with skull, wine cups, scattered small objects and an open book. “Staged Interior (Lounge)” and “Staged Exterior (Forest)” (both 2014) show fake in a photographic studio, with every apparatus exposed in the shadows around them.

One might feel from this show echoes of another Belgian artist shown before at Continua Beijing—Berlinde de Bruyckere. A similar gravity and existential tenor pervades both artists’ work, though de Beeck’s art acts without the fleshy religiosity of de Bruyckere’s. One suspects that visitors to de Beeck’s meticulously produced and arranged exhibition, in which grey walls and carpets and grisaille works make for a saturated, almost stifling atmosphere, will find themselves either seduced by or resisting its sentiment.


10 2014

Stewed Beef and Potatoes Communism

Before anything else, this exhibition strikes one with its formal—or physical—clarity. Every shape, color and line is defined with a precision befitting reproducible products, more than singular artistic objects. Absent is a sense of the artist’s direct touch; in its place looms large his design and the theme on which it is based—a slightly more flexible version of Socialism adopted in Hungary known sardonically as “Goulash Communism.” This term gained confusion and complexity in China where, mistranslated and demeaned by Mao as inferior, it became “stewed beef and potatoes Communism”.

The number of works is not many. On the back wall, “One Night Back to Wartime” (2014) is a circular arrangement of acrylic stars; beacon lights flash form their protruding, missile-like centers. Nearby are two panels depicting globes, the word “friend” (in different languages) pasted over them in a flurry of yellow labels (“We have Friends all over the World”, 2014). There are two bright yellow dumbbells in a corner on the floor (“Working out Class”, 2014). Lastly, curved sheaves of wheat in yellow and green roll against the wall—their shapes instantly recognizable from various Communist emblems, wherein they would have framed a national badge or political motif (“Surplus Value”, 2014). Here they encircle nothing, however, and lie as if strangely “harvested,” or as if in waiting for some new incentive.

This is a confident exhibition with impresses itself on one through its economy, and the memorable directness of the shapes of the works. One has the feeling of these works—especially “Surplus Value”—have been scaled up from smaller models to make large conceptual objects. There is a sense of scaling in another way, however, which is intangible; it relates to the sensation of displacement that accompanies former political motifs being abstracted and presented as an artistic thought or response. These works are products of a certain scaling and change through time and through the mind of the artist. Looking on them here, one might wonder: what do they become, or stop being, in this context? Can they ever escape association? If one didn’t recall the look of them as part of the Socialist visual arsenal, how would one react to them—what might be added or absent? In what way are they now “defunct,” or recast? Liu Xinyi has the knack of teasing such thought from existing imagery, and the uncertain values the attend it.

 Read it on Randian


10 2014

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