Book of Ruth, a fictional journal composed by the late artist Robert Seydel, shares with this magazine an inspiration in Duchamp’s infamous, unfinished painting The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. Seydel conceived of a work between art and literature, featuring “Ruth” as the bride among the bachelors Sol (her brother), Joseph Cornell, and Duchamp himself. The resulting 78 pages of poetic, verbal and pictorial collage are attributed to her; “Ruth is the artist in the book,” Seydel declares in the preface.
Seydel’s strange work went on view this summer at the Queens Museum in New York, and the journal pages, along with related small compositions, are radiant and eccentric: photographs vie with rough scraps of newspaper, painted patches, stick figures, spontaneous typewritten passages, pasted numbers, bits of advertising and floating orbs or cartoon eyes in startling red. The hare recurs as an emblematic creature. Seydel’s work is ripe with the mixture of pathos and fierceness which haunts successful collage. And yet he disavows authorship. Seydel’s alter ego, Ruth, is the author—she is based on Seydel’s real aunt, Ruth Greisman—and she is not alone. Duchamp himself was sometimes Rrose Selavy. The potter Grayson Perry is also Claire. The writer JM Coetzee has delivered lectures as Elizabeth Costello. (There’s also the artist Joe Scanlan, whose avatar Donelle Woodford is both of a different gender and a different race, but perhaps we should leave her be.)
One tends to think of an alter ego as an opportunity – a person one “would be,” beyond the limits of what one is. But Seydel didn’t use Ruth to imagine a more exciting life than his own. Quite the opposite, he admits: “Silly, isn’t it? You’d think you’d want to invent a heroine with more tooth to her.” He found in the life of his aunt, a bank clerk and Sunday painter living in remote Queens with her shell-shocked brother, a vessel to explore the quiet potency of a figure barely noticed by society. As a woman, Ruth was “further along the line of powerlessness;” her private status and domesticity, her position outside the mainstream and exterior to Seydel’s own self, signaled possibility for him.
Seydel dismissed the idea of “self-expression,” preferring the full conception of another self. In Book of Ruth, one finds the private universe of one man’s imagination layered onto his sense of someone else, and then expanded still further to conjure a third, female persona projected forcefully onto the page – for Seydel, a process of “opening outwards…into the air of art itself.” In a complicated dynamic, Seydel eventually found his own state blurred with Ruth: “I thought originally I wanted to inhabit another person; now she inhabits me.” Ruth also seems puzzled at times by her own expression in the Book, perhaps wavering between this and another, or simply “ordinary” world where disbelief prevails. And her perceived drabness is essential as a source of her power. Seydel enacts a valiant art against the forces of obscurity, against the judging of books by their covers, or artists by their outward lives, or indeed women’s roles as limited. Ruth triumphs. Through her, we see Seydel cocooning in an effort to emulate the “quickness and interiority” he admired in female artists and writers, and to better grasp his own creative tendencies.
In what transpires as a homage to the women in his life, the book is dedicated to Seydel’s mother, who, alongside the real Ruth, first introduced him to “the location of art and its importance as an activity….” Ruth is and was real, then, in more ways than one, and lest Book of Ruth be seen merely as a charming or sentimental work, its medium alone overpowers any such risk. Seydel loved what he called “contaminated” or “contradictory” artists; similarly, the strength of collage lies largely in its resistance, its ability to force disparate things together. Not unlike life – even apparently simple lives – incongruous fragments are cut from the procession and pieced together. Ruth’s unfettered making, her strange or humble fantasies, streams of consciousness and sudden artistic marks, are in their way resilient and impure. To quote another’s poem, this Ruth – and that Seydel, and even perhaps Duchamp, Coetzee, and their compatriots too – found herself unique, adept, and ‘somewhat more free.’ (Langston Hughes, Theme for English B, 1951.)
These untitled paintings by Harold Ancart had something of the character of illustration. While the artist’s interests are plain – there is a relationship to the work of abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, for example – the works shared certain qualities with the pictorial culture of storytelling, its visual forms and imaginative effects.
All but one of the works (all Untitled, 2015) use large 2.8 x 2 metre canvases; in a skillful hanging, five vertical paintings made for a commanding line-up along one wall, while a single horizontal piece lurked in the gallery’s innermost room. Having done a lap of these, one saw a smaller work on the way out: a blustery yellow fire next to an unclear pink shape which is curtailed by the edge of the canvas. The composition mimicked – but didn’t copy – that of a larger work opposite. The exhibition’s arrangement evoked a sense of narrative, as if these were separate apparitions in the progress of an undeclared tale.
The paintings are large enough to slightly dwarf the viewer; at the same time, their subjects, though rendered abstract, appeared to simulate things which in nature are small. Two of the vertical works feature energetic crops of round, flower-like blooms taller than human height whose striped stems sprout from vivid technicolored grounds. In another composition flourishes a raft of what appears to be green and blue grass, bordered with orange. Above it, two differently-sized blue orbs which might have become detached from other stems, or be something else, float amid a buzz of flecks and swipes in various colours. A bright green fir tree, hovering without a trunk over a surprisingly level layer (a horizon?) of colours could be either large or small. Throughout, Ancart employs caustic, often primary hues, seconded by milky pastels – his fires are an impossible yellow, the fir tree an abrasive red and green (as if a sarcastic swipe at traditional Christmas scenes). Against black or almost-black backgrounds, these colours and the unruly shapes and fragments they fill ferment a lurid but apparently consistent realm which might be Lilliputian or giant. The disorientation caused by their abstract ruptures on a dark, non-perspectival plane breeds a near uncanny or folkloric atmosphere.
Although they have not strictly been cut out, the edges of Ancart’s shapes are often jagged or bristling; smaller patches of colour are splintered in a manner which from afar can appear less painterly than cut and scattered. Grassy spikes and the hard edges of flames might recall the tapering of bats’ wings or some other gothic outline. The three green and white cloud-like shapes in the horizontal piece have toothed edges. In the same piece, marks trailing the primary shapes tend more towards line, not unlike arrows which lend the clouds a drifting sense of movement; elsewhere, double lines might convey vibration or shudders in the manner of cartoon drawings. There is something in the wilt of stems or the slight compression of the fir tree which echoes the surreal, traipsing creatures in Edward Gorey’s book The Utter Zoo Alphabet (1998). In its expressive application and texture and the mixing of pure colours directly on the canvas surface, the oil stick used for these paintings exudes the flair of children’s crayon drawings.
Collectively, then, Ancart’s paintings can seem barely able to contain their energies. In the best spirit of illustration, they conjure a visual world which is both irresistible and continuous.
“I think we can go past our state of permanent emergence” remarked ArtBo’s Director of four years, Maria Paz Gaviria (incidentally, the daughter of the former Colombian president César Gaviria), her tone tinged with humor and some impatience. Indeed, this was ArtBo’s 11th edition, this time scheduled slightly earlier in October so as to avoid conflict with FIAC in Paris.
Gaviria’s fatigue with the question of an emerging art scene is a measure of the well-established goals of ArtBo. The fair is focused on visibility for its galleries, which are now keen to be present on the international circuit (among those on the selection committee are Elba Benitez Gallery (Madrid), Beatrice Lopez (Instituto de Vision, Bogota) and Maria Eugenia of Galería Sextante, Bogota). Equally, ArtBo aims explicitly not to feature international blue chip galleries of the kind seen at Basel and Frieze. Instead, it wants to support regional and smaller spaces and, it would appear, foreign galleries which are in tune with them; for this see Lamb Arts (its first time at ArtBo) which works between London and Sao Paolo and includes South American artists, and—for the third time—Galerie Michael Sturm, based in Stuttgart but engaged with Latin American artists and showing also at PArC in Lima and Zona Maco in Mexico City. Given the quality of Bogota galleries Instituto de Vision and Casa Riegne at Frieze in New York earlier this year, it was interesting to see their “home” fair.
ArtBo is an initiative by the local Chamber of Commerce and symptomatic of a broader push for cultural development. It should not be forgotten that until about 10 years ago, Colombia and its principal city were effectively closed off from the outside world, repelling visitors with a violent drug trade, high levels of corruption and their attendant threats at street level. At the height of these troubles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Bogota was reputedly known as the “city of no-one”; subsequent leaders, most notably the charismaticAntanas Mockus (former President of the National University of Colombia and Mayor of Bogota from 1993-5 and 2001-3), have sought to transform Bogota, inspiring in residents a sense of ownership of the city and their daily environment. The last decade or so has seen very significant growth in the Columbian economy, which recently overtook Peru as the region’s fastest-growing; poverty levels have fallen from 65% in 1990 to under 24% this year, and there is a rising middle class. In Bogota, transportation and construction are clear priorities. The city is projected to open its first subway in 2025, and plans to improve and make its bus system energy-efficient.
ArtBo 2015, fair view
For its part, ArtBo is referred to by its organizers as “non-commercial” in the sense that the money it makes must be reinvested (sales figures are not released). In the words of its director, since its inception the fair has been effectively “charged with showing the scene in its entirety”—not least because within the region, Colombia has relatively few museums and institutions. Varied sections within the fair purport to do this: a main galleries area, “Projects” (curated this year by Catalina Lozano and Manuela Moscoso), “References”, a show providing a form of historical backdrop (curated by Ana María Lozano), and “Artecamara”, the annual exhibition devoted to relatively new artists (curator Mariangela Méndez). New this year was “Sitio”, designed to allow galleries to propose works or displays that go beyond the normal booth format. There is a Forum for talks (which included artists as participants) and an appealing artists’ book section. “Articulare”, formerly a section for children’s activities, has developed into an impressive interactive project area at the end of the hall.
Following ArtBo’s lead, October has become Bogota’s “art month” (this has apparently been passed as a law), with 3-4 smaller art fairs, the most prominent of which is Odeon, closer to the center of the city, and other events including gallery openings in the La Macarena and San Felipe neighborhoods. San Felipe, in particular, has come up in the last two years as something of a new gallery district, with important spaces like FLORA ars + natura, whose Director José Roca had been curating Latin American art at the Tate. The Arte Circuito map done by the City Institute for the Arts, the Chamber of Commerce and Fundación Arteria provides a guide to the city’s permanent institutions, art spaces and other cultural outlets. No doubt connected, the first Bogota Biennial happened in May-June this year. One certainly noticed the city’s willingness to place artistic interventions in public historic sites – there was an excellent installation of large wooden sculptures and a video work, “Héroes Mil”, by Juan Fernando Herrán inside the Monumento a los Héroes. Throughout the former colonial residence of Simon Bolivar in the city center, now a museum, Instituto de Vision had installed stuffed birds of all kinds by Alberto Baraya for the memorable project “Ornitología Bolivariana”, which also included an outdoor sound performance. A representative at the press lunch hosted by Bogota’s Tourism office and “Invest in Bogota” during ArtBo was unwitting testimony to the growth of Bogota’s cultural industry, having moved from her native Venezuela for the cultural sector opportunities and better quality of life available in the Colombian capital.
Alberto Baraya, “Ornitología Bolivariana”, installation view inside the Quinta de Bolivar museum, Bogota.
At ground level, the fair felt comfortable and certainly unhurried, without the bombast of the blue-chip fairs—but also without their color. Regardless of ArtBo’s contemporary emphasis, there was a definite visual predominance of the sort of natural, earthy hues (beige, brown, white) common to a certain thread of late 20th century conceptualism around documentary and land art. One noticed a number of monochrome cityscape photographs, installations using animal hide and rocks and smaller scale graphic works, as well as some collage. Interestingly, the Projects section included noticeably more color and more varied media including digital art. Perhaps, one featured artist speculated, this was because its curators are from but nonetheless based outside Bogota, and thus “have different eyes.” The scale of the works on show throughout the main galleries section was mostly domestic, with few large installations.
Although a couple of the foreign galleries reported an unnerving start to the week, with “nothing ready and dust everywhere” on the Monday (one mentioned that the director’s first remark upon meeting him on site was “Sorry!”), by the opening the fair looked good; the quality of the display was high, if low-key, and the layout manageable. One sensed simply some cultural differences with regard to punctuality—there were not a few power drills were being wielded as the press circulated before the main preview. Notable hitches were the lack of functioning wifi in the exhibition center (also a problem last year), and the conspicuous absence of catalogues until the last day. Theft (a possibility not to be blasé about at any art fair) was sufficient to mean laptops were sometimes checked for proof of ownership as one left the exhibition hall. The cafes were underwhelming—but there were roaming stalls giving out free coffee shots. A stylized VIP lounge occupied a corner of the hall plus an outside area with woven rugs, a mixture of differently-designed chairs and sofas and a loud, soulful soundtrack, its walls papered with retro Banco de Bogota logos. The annual VIP party at a giant steakhouse hung with votive clutter and with a sunken salsa dancefloor in the neighboring town of Chia was unmissable.
ArtBo Director Maria Paz Gaviria addresses visitors to the fair’s 11th edition.
With booth costs ranging from USD4,000 for a project booth to USD 8,000-17,000 in the main section, and an admission fee of 35,000 pesos (about USD12; 15,000 pesos for students), ArtBo is relatively affordable. Although one noticed some sales occurring (Instituto de Vision had swapped out two large paintings in its booth by Day 3), the impression of this fair was not of rapid or even direct sales—nor of this necessarily being the primary objective. Josée Bienvenu Gallery (New York) was in attendance for the third year running. Considering the appeal of ArtBo, Josée described the experience of this fair in terms of less selling, but more valuable time spent with curators and other practitioners who come. She described an interesting scene and “sophisticated tastes” in Bogota, and deemed the fair worthwhile for the contact and presence it gave in this environment. Looking ahead to forthcoming editions, one hopes that such an atmosphere will be maintained.
MAGiCSTANCE is a small exhibition, the first impression of which is quite modest. Attached to the walls are several mixed media sculptures from New York based artist JJ Peet’s Stilifes series and one large work on canvas. For those who merely glance round the show, the sculptures may appear naïve or simply quirky, like little protruding stage sets. Closer inspection of them, however, reveals the depth and sensitivity of Peet’s practice.
‘Sculpture’ feels inadequate as a description of these intricate and multifaceted works, an example of which might combine ceramic elements, a newspaper photograph, pine, aluminum, acrylic, rope and paint (INTO, 2013). Rather, each piece comes off as a kind of microcosm – a marvel of subject matter distilled not into minimal or highly-finished form, but into a new configuration infused, literally, with the artist’s touch and characterized by an idiosyncratic approach to composition. INTO, for example, features a coil of cream coloured rope hanging from its left side and a turd-like ceramic shape (one suspects Peet wouldn’t object to the simile) with six even holes punched through the back of it and dimpled all over by the pressure of the artist’s fingers; putty-like, this curls over the side of a ceramic cut-out shape of a camera. Two tiny orange-red cylindrical shapes are affixed to the acrylic base, which protrudes horizontally and also supports a small earthenware disc with a hole in the middle and a horizontal black rectangle whose bottom right corner has been painted in white. The left side of the composition is pockmarked, scratched aluminium; the right a page taken from an American newspaper whose title has been roughly painted over in broad strokes of black leaving only a central phrase, ‘LATE CITY FINAL,’ and the price, ‘$1.00’. Below this is a horrifying photograph of men on motorcycles brandishing pistols and dragging a half-stripped body along the road. A pinkish stain marks the tarmac, and all the faces have been whited out.
If the above description appears to shift from drawing quite a personal, tactile sensation from humble or found materials to a subject altogether less intimate, this would begin to introduce Peet’s approach in Stilifes. The series is partly addressed to a passive mode of receiving news from media sources and through electronic devices. Peet’s work has been likened to guerilla journalism. But as reflections on contemporary society and imagery, these works come across as a very pure, direct kind of art in which the surrounding context is absorbed and reformatted by the artist into a new, interpretive object or community of forms.
As such, the exhibition conveys real confidence in the power both of materials and of objects to convey meaning. Also clear is Peet’s attachment to and respect for the media in which he works (though it should be noted that his practice extends to painting, drawing and video). There is an underlying awareness of the potential of relatively small scale work to invite and reward curiosity, and of collage to conjure productive visual relationships. The Stilifes are affective sums of carefully-chosen parts.
Israeli artist Michal Helfman presented a taut display of drawing, installation, a game and a video–her first in New York. This was the penultimate in a series of six quick-fire exhibitions addressing contemporary value systems (for which the downtown nonprofit P! temporarily rebranded as K.). Passersby were misled by CHANGE (2013), an illuminated green sign in the window mimicking a currency exchange storefront. Inside, a number of visitors asked to change money at a service window before discovering the ruse. Surprise, one might also say, is a form of creative currency.
Helfman’s regard for staging and interaction in part dates back to time spent working at a night club. To the right of the service window, heavy strings of metal piping, elongated ceramic beads, small plastic skulls and shells veiled the doorway into the gallery. This partial barrier, smartly entitled Certain (2015), both generated discomfort and focused one’s attention. After the clanking awkwardness of getting past it, entering the show’s main space felt relatively free. An anthropomorphic metal sculpture, titled Attention (2015), pinned a bundle of bills under one “foot” and aimed an elastic band at a hole in the service window. This impish piece characterized the show’s light, slightly peculiar atmosphere.
Two works were particularly potent. An acrylic and oil pastel drawing, One Dollar (2013) expands the pyramid seen on dollar bills, with the “Eye of Providence” gazing from its floating apex. In Helfman’s rendition, one end of the ribbon flanking the pyramid gains a faint, demonic visage. Perspective has been shifted slightly from the original image; the eye looks askance, the pyramid is partially rotated and the now-lurid green vegetation, overgrown and seething, looks like the sea. Paradoxically, Helfman’s variations show that none are needed to demonstrate the ghoulish character of a symbol passed daily from hand to hand.
Two stools and a low dicing table stood in front of the drawing; the woven plastic of the stools also covered part of the gallery wall as if to continue the scenario. The installation, titled Give/Get (2015), includes a pair of dice with words, not pips, printed on them: We, Will, For, Get, Give and Not. An accompanying document lists the possible combinations and suggests meanings for them (“For–Give: I cannot forgive that art will sleep in the bed that was made for it.”) Riding a narrative of socio-political worth, the dice were 3D printed at the artist’s request on a machine smuggled into Syria by a humanitarian worker to make prosthetic aides.
“I’m so broke I can’t pay attention” belied the poverty of its title. In the video % (2014), dancers move in a line, breaking into formations but always falling into a collective forward step; in the show, the works likewise inserted themselves into streams of value and skirted them by turn. This waltz of engagement was astute, and never earnest. Helfman conjured up a lightness of being that shielded the subject matter—money, exchange, symbolism, economies of attention and care—from judgment or any pretense of consequence. What remained was a stimulating and unburdened reflection on contemporary value, with artworks as its conduits.
The work of Channa Horwitz (1932–2013) revolved around systems and notation. The codes she devised mimic the languages of music and mathematics (indeed, some of her compositions were designed for used by musicians and dancers). In their final sum, the works appeal to the eye with visible rhythm and intense repetition, accumulating lines and colours to compose a fine mesh of marks or unusual shapes generated by a specific iterative logic. A single drawing in this exhibition, Movement # II Sheet A (1969), is a modest testimony to ‘Sonakinatography’ – the code Horwitz devised, based on the numbers one to eight, for writing down time, rhythm and movement (each allocated to different elements of a composition) on eight-to-the-inch graph paper. In it, precise thought is given form, and their mutual satisfaction gives rise to Horwitz’s unique aesthetic.
Figure 8 borrows from this system, assembling eight works by eight artists who are working with different forms of ‘writing’ and their transference into material. To lead with language in this way (however broadly) breaks from the raft of gestural abstract painting now prevalent in New York and whose messiah, Albert Oehlen, has a concurrent solo show at the New Museum. The works at Clifton Benevento are thoroughly without gesture: the artists’ hands are all but invisible.
Noticeable in the context of Horwitz’s oeuvre is the involvement of electronic computation in the works of these contemporary artists. A video work by Siebren Versteeg entitled BOOM (Fresher Acconci) (2007), uses a program to grab pictures from random Google searches and insert them into a loop of an offering hand. For Intersecting the Values of Hue and Brightness (2015), Joshua Citarella, produced technicolour vinyl sheathes whose gradients are generated according to coordinates of the gallery’s architecture. The other highly coloured piece in the show, something of a painting-by-numbers work by Mariah Dekkenga (Untitled, 2015), translates compositions from Adobe Illustrator by hand into paint on canvas.
Next to these colourific surfaces are more sculptural pieces by Zarouhie Abdalian, who has assembled seven piano keys on the wall for Every Instance (C#/D?) (2014), and Luis Miguel Bendaña, who traps a tangle of VHS tape beneath blue netting in Tears of a Pig (2015). Mike Yaniro has carved out letters and numbers from a blue PVC sheet and painted them in white. Something of an anomaly, Mailed Painting 168 (2015) by Karin Sander is nothing but a primed canvas bearing the marks of its unprotected transit from Berlin to New York.
These works offer various artistic relations between media and music, illustration, transportation, image circulation and architecture. Unwittingly perhaps, the show in part recounts the disappearance of physical supports for data and the prominence of electronic analysis. Gone is the combination of functionality and great labour in Horwitz’s notations, with visual art as the transcendent outcome; in its place are swifter visible results, the final sum of which might be purely decorative. Where these works lack a certain power, collectively they do approach the question of where paths through art and information might begin today.
Storefront for Art and Architecture’s recent exhibition, “Facing East”, felt like an opportunity grandly missed. Its subject, the involvement of China in Africa—for example, through governmental loans, state-owned and private enterprise and aid relief—is a considerable and deepening feature of the global landscape. Although China is not the only nation to have embraced opportunities to trade with and invest in the African continent, and though loan and investment figures are difficult to verify, it is certainly Africa’s biggest trading partner. The last ten years have seen over a million Chinese workers move there to construct a presence manifest mainly through infrastructural projects such as highways, stadiums, hospitals, airports and dams, but extends more subtly, for example, into labor practices, communications, education and social interaction. As such, the situation is a complex and developing one riven with positive, negative and evolving effects.
In a strange titular twist, “Facing East” was based on part of the “Go West” project founded in 2009 (though the Storefront press release omitted to mention its name) which draws together a range of practitioners in different regions to investigate emerging megacities. Assumed still to be underway, “Go West” has been initiated and undertaken in person by the Shanghai-based architect Daan Roggeveen and the journalist Michiel Hulshof. Since 2012, they have conducted research in different African cities specifically to explore the increasing presence of Chinese urban models there. Their preliminary report was published last year in the magazine Urban China, though most visitors to the show were likely to have missed the copy lying among other publications on the table. Indeed, the potential depth of their investigation and the great interest, importance and intricacies of the socio-political and economic circumstances it seeks to investigate at a local level were wholly evaded by an exhibition which consisted mainly of poor quality photographs, unimaginatively presented. These depicted seemingly random scenes, for example of factory floors, building sites and trite shots of Chinese signage in African locales. Poor captioning did very little to elucidate the various photos or their wider context—one might have gleaned as much (or more) from a vague Google image search. Perhaps the most worthwhile element of the display was a timeline broadly charting the involvement of China in Africa for the last hundred years. Tacked to the back of the door in Storefront’s articulated wall, this was dog-eared and encouraged little attention from the casual visitor who, on the back of the press release alone, might not have realized that this is a case of increasing development rather than merely a recent phenomenon.
In short, those who had expected at least an engaging look into the subject of Chinese presence and socio-economic influence in Africa would have been sorely disappointed. In place of a well-researched and astute presentation, albeit in a small space, “the visitor finds himself in the same unstable position as Hulshof and Roggeveen during their research trips, and is forced to make associations between narratives, navigate existing and new relationships, and attempt to tie these together to comprehend the next chapter of globalization…”(from the press release). For this viewer, at least, the show barely filled a page.
It is not in the nature of biennial or triennial exhibitions to offer a clear picture so much as a wide-eyed survey under an overarching theme. The New Museum Triennial hopes to present emerging and topical art in a predictive manner which other museums are unable or less inclined to offer. The Triennial’s deeper significance lies largely in its afterglow—in encountering work by these artists elsewhere in subsequent exhibitions and as their practices continue to develop. Its present tense should be an alert, stimulating look at current artistic production and its provocations.
“Surround Audience” featured some 51 artists from different countries. This slightly awkward title is perhaps an apt one to express the state of digital culture and the growing sensation of individuals or users as objects, their own agency becoming less distinct as that of greater powers—or technology itself—subtly encroaching; in exploring the effects of technology, the theme leant towards affect. A plethora of works in very diverse media included those which were decaying, performative, animated, painted, carved, folded or photographic, conveying if nothing else the multiplicity and fraught nature of the environment curators Lauren Cornell and artist Ryan Trecatin sought to address. 30 pieces were commissioned (for example, from Nadim Abbas, Martine Syms, Casey Jane Ellison, Sascha Braunig and Juliana Huxtable), or came from residencies hosted by the museum. The installation across multiple floors and in the stairwell (which housed a single sound and light piece by Ashland Mines, “promise of echo” 2015), foyer and lower level was certainly complicated, at times uneasy. Repeat visits improved the experience of this dense exhibition, the better to single out particular works in the crowd.
“Surround Audience”, exhibition view at the New Museum. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.
This triennial was met with the sorts of questions to which such shows should be accustomed: could the arrangement of the works have been better? Was it well-enough researched? Did the commissioned works adequately reflect the theme of the show and take into account their audience? Was there too much emphasis on labelling (each piece had a lengthy introduction)? Were the works aesthetically strong? Was there a lot of basic appropriation? And what of the international breadth of the artists chosen; was it token? More specifically, some remarked on the lack of ostensibly “digital” or internet-based works; but to expect a majority of these would be in a sense to deny the prevalence of digital culture, as if it remained an isolated strand of daily life with an attendant artistic form.
“Surround Audience”, exhibition view at the New Museum. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.
Josh Kline, “Freedom”, mixed-media installation, 2015. Courtesy the artist and 47 Canal, New York. Special thanks to Contemporary Art Partners.
While certain pieces drew predictable notice—Frank Benson’s “Juliana” sculpture (2015) of the artist Juliana Huxtable, and “Freedom” (2015) by Josh Kline, wherein life-sized riot police figures with Teletubbie faces guarded a synthetic video of Obama delivering an alternate inaugural address—less was said about a number of works sharing an anachronistic, surreal character. Shreyash Karle’s satiric Museum Shop of Fetish Objects series was one, displaying (in the manner of a curio cabinet) objects which converge on a dry critique of contemporary Indian society and misogyny in the Bollywood film industry. Strange gear carved from wood, cast in silicone or beaten from metal sheets included “Penis making apparatus”, a “Pregnant Head”, “Ladies Hanger” (a clothes hanger with a pair of protrusions added to help the garment hold a “female” shape), “Cleavage Plates for Idol Worship” and an orange silicone “He-she object”—a dildo on one end and a hollow tube on the other. Not far away, an installation by Eva Ko?átková entitled “Not How People Move But What Moves Them” combined collages with a series of sculptures made form metal bars and in absurdist shapes designed to restrict or encase the body when “worn”; among these were cage-like shoes and a seat with metal frames to hold the legs. Both installations also included collage and drawing, and asserted a performative approach—with alternative “devices”—in a context reflecting the kind of digital distraction which prioritizes less physical modes of attention and participation, absorbing the body, and instead pursues ease, portability, accessibility and lightness in its apparatus.
Shreyas Karle, Museum Shop of Fetish Objects, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Project88, Mumbai . Special thanks to Project 88.
Shreyas Karle, “He-she object”, silicon, dimensions variable, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Project88, Mumbai. Special thanks to Project 88.
Eva Ko?átková , Not How People Move But What Moves Them, mixed media, 2013. Courtesy the artist; Meyer Riegger, Berlin / Karlsruhe; and hunt kastner, Prague. Additional support provided by the Czech Center, New York. Special thanks to hunt kastner.
A memorable stop-motion video piece by Peter Wachtler follows a pair of old fashioned crutches wired clumsily together. Like a pair of legs, they move forwards in a fraught, straining half-step against a thick, dark background while a monologue appears in subtitles below “I left trouble behind…I do whatever I want… I’m the BEST. Yes. ME”. A strong narrative work rendered poetic and lent pathos by the anthropomorphic movement of an object, “HCL H264? shares something with the animations of Jan Švankmajer. Both artists have created brief, highly textured works in which objects or supports take on a life of their own, relating miniature tales through movement infused with a resilient frailty and a strange power inherited from the unseen hands that position them. Wachtler’s video delivers, too, the sense of allegory which attends surrealism—a mode Jörg Heiser has described as “borne out of a throbbing discontent with systematic forms of repression.” Also part of “Surround Audience” were two sculptures of wiry, flesh-less figures wrapped in bandages (“B” and “D”, both 2014) by Renaud Jerez which conveyed a similar sense of injury.
Peter Wächtler, “HCL H264?, single-channel video, black and white; 8:26 min, 2012. Courtesy the artist; Lars Friedrich, Berlin; dependence, Brussels; and Reena Spaulings, New York.
For this viewer at least, these works stood out in the Triennial’s crowd. In a similar vein, one might also point up Eduardo Navarro’s “Timeless Alex” (a performance piece with a tortoiseshell costume scaled up to human size), Shelly Nadashi’s large puppet installation and paintings by Firenze Lai in which heaving bodies illustrate awkward emotions. Considered loosely together, these works advance a sense of peculiarity, surrealism, frailty, slowness and satire relative to human affect—traits which were less predictable for this exhibition, and which furnish productive critiques for its thematic territory.
Firenze Lai, “Tennis Court”, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm, 2013. Private collection. Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou, China. Special thanks to Alan Lau.
“Surround Audience”, exhibition view at the New Museum. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo: Benoit Pailley.
Your graduation show was the first time you involved the internet in your work. You made a new dictionary composed entirely of censored terms which you spent 3 months compiling, looking up every single word in the Chinese dictionary on google.cn, and recording all those that met with a blocked result. It was a hugely laborious piece which resulted in an actual book (Blind Spot, 2007). More recently, Is it me you are looking for? (2014) also included censored content, combining Lionel Richie’s 1984 Hello music video with three images from the “LAN Love Poem.gif” series (2014), in which “website unavailable” pages from censored websites are overlaid with kitschy slogans from Chinese internet poetry.
How would you describe your attitude to censored pages as source material? The way you use it now, a blocked page is always the start of something else; the “website unavailable” notice has become a familiar backdrop used again and again. It comes across more lightheartedly, almost like the devil you know.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, artist book (2007)
I guess that when I was younger, I saw censorship more like an enemy, with more limitations than possibilities. In 2007, when I made the first piece Blind Spot, blogs were trending in China. Although blogger.com was blocked, there were some great local blog servers, and for the first time as someone from the post ’80s generation, I got to know a lot of public intellectuals from their blogs—that was enlightening for me. I was a senior in college, and very idealistic. I wanted to be more responsible for society. On the other hand, I was starting to love the internet because blogs, Google, and Wikipedia really changed the way I gathered information. When I was a kid, I never truly trusted the school books and the newspapers in the same way that I didn’t trust my English teacher’s accent. It was totally mean and cynical because I felt everything could be censored or manipulated here. Even when the internet came out in China, it was censored to begin with, but at least if knew a way to get past it, I could get past the “second hand information.”
The first internet piece I made was trying to address censorship with an end goal of bringing change to it. Over the years, I feel like censorship has changed me instead. I was sad, angry, and finally accepted it, like a phase of a breakup. Censorship is like a nasty boyfriend/girlfriend you cannot tame. It’s even worse than that; it’s actually more like developing Stockholm syndrome—a traumatic bonding. This kind of love takes place in an isolated environment where the hostage-taker—who makes the rules—becomes so powerful that you gradually fall in love with them.
Miao Ying, Is it me you are looking for? (2014)
For instance, when I first came back to China from the States, I realized that everybody was starting to use the Chinese version of Twitter—Wei Bo. I refused to use it at first because the only reason it was popular was because Twitter was blocked, and Wei Bo agreed to cooperate with the government. Later, I realized it was silly and pretentious to not use it, because the beauty of it is self-censorship. That’s when I became fascinated by the local Chinese internet and realized how rich and unique it is as a material. In the music video for Hello, Lionel Richie fell in love with a blind girl and in the end she made a sculpture of him from her observation; this double blindness is quite like the romantic relationship between me and the Great Firewall.
You have used different physical installations to display your work. For the exhibition “Gif Island” at V Art Center in Shanghai last year, Landscape.gif (2013) was composed of deckchairs draped with emoji-printed towels. Multiple touch-screen devices were angled closely over the chairs, displaying trembling GIF images—too many to watch at once. Wires and crumpled pieces of paper bearing the Chinese meme “Zan” (akin to the “Like” of Western social media) were strewn about the floor. Part of the same exhibition, APP-nosis (2013–14) suspended iPhones at the apex of open metal pyramids. On the floor below, real turf and printed cushions invited one to recline passively beneath the screen; the square background hue of an app was projected on the wall with a soundtrack of waves breaking.
Miao Ying, APP-nosis (2013-2014)
These installations convey subtly different atmospheres around interaction with smart phones; the setups are both intuitive and quite absurd. I wondered if you could talk about them, perhaps alongside your own experience, the moods you imagine when you build them, and how they come across to the viewer.
Both of them come from daily experience, I wanted to build something that is familiar—extremely daily, yet ceremonial. People are looking at their apps all the time, but they are not really looking at them. I don’t know if people fully realize how technology is changing or controlling our lives. The work deals with the integration of technology and the human spirit. Technology is the “fifth element” on the meditation pyramid. By staring at the giant, non-functional, color-changing app icon and sitting inside the pyramid, the participant connects to the universe through the smart phone; the smart phone amplifies the essences of the universe, which travels back to people’s bodies, then to their souls.
Miao Ying, landscape.gif (2013-2014)
Landscape.gif is inspired by bestselling items on TaoBao (the Chinese equivalent of eBay); iPad holders for people to use when they are lying on the bed. The way you look up at it has the psychological implication of you looking up towards a higher power. Is it your iPad or God that is watching over and looking after you? I wanted to make a blanket for the people who are busy staring at the screen while enacting this daily ceremony—I don’t want them to get cold, you know? I wanted to make a local internet blanket. This “Zan” (“Like”) blanket is covered in original emojis inspired by Chinese New Year door decorations, only these emoji themes wish for; “Eat Well,” “Get Rich,” “Have iPhone6+” and “Emigrate to the USA.” At Chinese New Year, along with wishing for wealth, people wish for more “likes” on social media.
Your work has a deliberate “Chinese internet” aesthetic; you use this as a medium, for example by including Bilibili videos and the Jackie Chan shampoo ad in the new piece you showed in Venice, A Healthy Fear (2015). How much of a boundary is there between what you make and what you look at for research? Do you see your work as part of it all, or hope that it will eventually be seen by the same users who watch Bilibili etc.?
I call those “video player works,” not video works, as I have no interest in video art. The videos in my works are always appropriated media, and they are part of a bigger piece to add context to it. You are not just watching the video, you are watching it being watched. I like the idea of “video sharing” instead of video. The ads and the quality of the video depend on your internet speed, and in the end you can click on suggested videos YouTube provides for you, and you end up watch something else. In A Healthy Fear, the background is a snapshot of an official Google ad from the Google YouTube channel about bringing Google apps and chrome books to classrooms in Malaysia, where two Muslim kids with perfectly satisfied smiles on their faces hold Google laptops on their laps. Another video is also from the official Google channel, where in another Asian country, Japan, people are doing a calisthenics routine with Google letters. What is funny is that there is neither Google nor YouTube in China, but that doesn’t stop people from using Google. The recording of the video is by a Chinese netizen who used Google Translate to “sing”(read) the most unlikely viral internet song, My Skate Shoes, which is a voice for the internet meme “diaosi” (self-depreciating loser). The GIF of Jackie Chan shaking his head is a Wechat gif sticker. People are celebrating “Duang” as a viral meme that originates from a commercial featuring Jackie Chan in which he described his hair quality as being “Duang” – an onomatopoeic word for bouncy-ness. This commercial was remixed by Chinese Netizens 11 years later, (when Jackie Chan’s son was arrested on drug charges) to the tune of My Skate Shoes. Together they create a new meme, “Duang,” to represent something disingenuous, but in a humorous way. This remixed video was first uploaded to Bilibili where it trended rapidly, then quickly the GIF of Jacky Chan shaking his head saying “Duang!” was all over WeChat. GIFs of a meme have become humorous topics to light up a conversation.
I would love to see comments flowing around my work. It would be a work of art in the age of social media.
The background for Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile is a “website unavailable” notice for Instagram; across the bottom potion of the image is an undulating line which reads “Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile”. This is taken from an online signature and contains particular references. Could you explain the different elements which compose this GIF, and why you chose this signature?
In Chinese, “bai” means hundred; “du” means degrees. This double entendre, “hundred degrees” is the Chinese search engine Baidu, which became the main search engine back in 2010 when Google left China. Maybe years later, the younger Chinese generation might think Google copied Baidu. This poem I found online; it reads, “The thirty degrees of your smile can not be found on Baidu.” I pictured this poem as depicting a heart-broken guy looking for his former girlfriend’s picture on Instagram. Her perfect, charming, unique smile cannot be found because Instagram is blocked in China. Therefore, he had to search for her smile on Baidu, aka: “Hundred degrees,” and found nothing.
This series of works involved a large amount of research, reading and collecting online signatures. I usually picked the ones that were the most “cheesily” creative, which gave me a visual feeling about this poem. Then I found a GIF that fit the mood of the poem and created the 3D wording, and imagined how the animation would look before I even started to put everything together. in this one, “she” is hiding behind the browser as if the smile cannot be found on Baidu.
Also, I think it is very important that those works are in GIF format. GIF is the format that was born for the internet. A GIF is comprised of multiple still images that can be viewed in a browser, which plays the animation automatically. Only recently have computer operating systems made it possible to view GIFs without opening them in a browser. I think it’s an ironic use GIFs to show the disconnection of the internet. To me, it’s an interesting paradox.
Blocking off parts of the internet is an unpleasant and manipulative action by the authorities which already has a long history in China. I feel that people outside the Chinese internet might see it purely as a restricted area that is generally negative for its users, whose online experience is limited; those not engaged with the “Chinternet” are not in contact with or experiencing the web as Chinese netizens do. Your work distils a different sensation, however—a humble charm and a sort of detached sympathy; to me, it radiates a certain pride about online culture and community in mainland China. Inside those boundaries, there are netizens who are hugely responsive and alert – perhaps much more-so than those who can browse freely.
Things can change very fast in China; it can be a good and bad thing. 20 years ago, personal computers were far from popular here. Today, China has the largest market of smart phone users in the world. As far as I know, WeChat is the most entertaining application for instant communication, and the way Chinese use GIF stickers in WeChat is mind-blowing.
I admire the internet for its infinite collective sense of humor, which the Chinese usually lack. It seems that with the internet, the Chinese are starting to show a sense of humor by being able to laugh at themselves. The internet is still the closest thing to free speech in China.
When I first came to the United States to study, I was shocked by how much free speech Americans had. Does Jesus Christ bless America? I almost felt embarrassed… it was like walking into a nude beach by accident—wearing clothes is more awkward than no clothes. At this point in time, from an outsider’s perspective, looking inside the Great Firewall might be like showing up to Carnival in Brazil wearing a tuxedo and expecting to ballroom dance.
From one side of the wall, the Chinese internet appears to be a barren wasteland, yet despite its limitations, it has been evolving and growing—even faster than the net outside the wall. New memes are created rapidly, depending on what underground culture decides to make pertaining to mainstream culture and internet with Chinese characteristics, which is self-censorship. If you know something will be censored, you can go around it, using homophones, making up new words, etc., which all involve a sense of humor and intelligence. You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.
Location: Beijing, Shanghai, Chinternet, Internet
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
When I was a sophomore in college, I had to make an animation by using Photoshop and the visiting French professor failed me…T__T, because my PS skill was very limited Y__Y. I had no interest or experience with technology, but we had a huge prize for scholarship—money lured me to work harder with technology. One semester later I was introduced to Rhizome, that’s when I began to fall in love with technology, for real.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New Media Arts department from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, and an MFA from the School of Art and Design at Alfred University, NY, USA, with a focus in Electronic Integrated Arts.
What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?
I am a full time artist now, but in the past I have worked as an assistant professor, an art gallery manager, a graphic designer and a TV show producer.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
My desktop and the desktop of a random netizen I found online, whose operating system is in Spanish:
The surfaces of Matt Hoyt’s minute sculptures are distressed by scratches that serve to show both the carving and grafting required during the meticulous process of making each one. The materials used, while appearing natural, include adhesives, polyurethane and wood filler.
In his show at Art in General, a number of pieces – the largest around ten centimetres long, but most only three cm² or so – were carefully laid on black shelves at approximately waist height on three walls of a space (named the Musée Minuscule) big enough to accommodate only one person at a time. Each grouping has a title of its own, including: Group 133 – Together (2013–15), Group 134 – Shared Axis (2013–15) or Group 136 – New Seeds (2014–15). The titles befit the physical presence of the works, whose forms hint at enigmatic jetsam, talismans or historic fragments. Hoyt spends long periods working on his sculptures, lending them imaginative reach as embodiments of accumulated time or experience: their appeal is not purely physical. Hoyt himself prefers to shield his work from either tactile or tacit definitions. He has said of this ongoing series: ‘The pieces are never the execution of a technique nor the expression of any clear and logical idea or concept; they simply are.’
Nevertheless, the works invite scrutiny; their apparently arbitrary shapes are more refined than they might first appear. For instance, Group 135 – Bronze Rings (2015) is a pair of grey sculptures, each of which has a fairly large, evenly-sized hole through the middle, one flanked by two rounded protrusions that curve down slightly, making the object stand up. A neck-like stem makes as if to extend purposefully from the top of the object, but has been flattened off to a wide stump; a vague burnt discolouration seeps round it into the grey of the rest, which has been heavily scored with scratches. Around the hole is a lighter patina. Its companion piece lacks a stunted stem, with three of the rounded, paddle-like protrusions surrounding a central hole that faces forwards rather than up. Guided by a different principle, the three works comprising Group 137 – Here to There (2015) have no holes. The central and simplest one is pebble-like: a piebald object in grey and white. The two at either side are tripartite, vaguely suggesting primitive shapes of birds with tapered wings or fins. The subtlety of these works lies not in their surfaces or shapes, but in the character of minor inclinations or curves, the depth of a dip or the gradient of an orifice.
Anomalous to the remainder of the exhibition for its complexity and size, Group 134 – Shared Axis (2013–15) comprises two sculptural pieces: one with tapering points that correspond geometrically to the positioning of holes in the centre of the object; the other a three-dimensional rhombus, its sides cut away into limbs with four holes at the central point between the opposite tapering ends. What, we are given to wonder, is the relationship between Group 134 – Shared Axis and the smaller works? Do the larger sculptures carry a certain superiority of function or merit an enhanced level of attention from the artist? Combining both composition and erosion, Hoyt’s working process is one of intense physical labour. This formal determination is at once admirable and peculiar. Here, re-discovering the allure of small objects, I am prompted to recall Gaston Bachelard, who recognized the ‘dynamic virtues of miniature’, in which values are engulfed.