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.
Brent Wadden (b.1979, Canada) has just completed his first major solo exhibition in New York at Mitchell-Innes and Nash. The show presented 8 large-scale woven works. Having trained as a painter, Wadden (between studios in Vancouver and Berlin), is now focused on weaving, using brightly colored yarns to create dense, abstract pieces which are then taken down and stretched over canvas.
Iona Whittaker: We could begin with how you started weaving, and how it took over as the main medium in which you now work.
Brent Wadden: I started weaving in Berlin [Wadden began renting a studio there in 2004]. I wanted to work on a specific project. I reached out to Travis Meinhof and asked if he could show me. He lent me a little laser cut loom about 8 inches wide which provided me with a starting point.
At the beginning, I was still painting a lot and doing work on other projects; it’s only been in the last 2 or 3 years that I have solely been weaving. It’s very nimble; it’s very time-consuming. Painting is more about sitting there and thinking and making decisions; the weaving process is more about working all the time. It’s a time-based process.
IW: You said you were totally drawn into it – what do you think did that? Is it something about the method that you enjoyed? Read the rest of this entry →
Chambers Fine Art (522 West 19th Street, New York, NY 10011, U.S.A.), May 15 – Aug 22, 2015
This is a second “Constellations” show from Zhao Zhao—the first iteration in 2013 presented real glass panels. Now, Zhao has produced a series of paintings mimicking broken glass. These are canvases cleverly primed with lacquered brown on which reverberating orbs of splintered blues and whites simulate the visual effect of glass smashed as if by a hammer, bullets or some other focused impact. Certainly, they inspire similes—jellyfish, perhaps, or flowers, as remarked by guests at the opening.
Thus far, Zhao has proved adept at turning ideas—not in terms of a transformation, but rather as if rotating them inside a display case for which his work can feel destined. His practice as seen across various exhibitions is less a constellation than a string of tightly produced series (the glass panels, the blue sky paintings, the stupa sculptures, the mouse dropping paintings and now these skillful renditions of broken glass). One feels he doesn’t look back.
Constellations II is a series about surfaces, regardless of what is invested in it verbally (early on, the press release names Prussian blue and Van Dyck brown). These are extremely formal works, potentially beguiling up close and impressive from a distance. Unless extra effort is applied on the part of the viewer to scrutinize them and find or invent something more, their effect is as instantaneous as the meeting of implement and glass they simulate. These are indeed painstaking works, and this is, “ironically” or not (see press release), a different kind of action from the sort which can break glass. But there in the gallery, theirs is regardless a stark collision of paint and eye: a swift, direct hit.
Clara M Kim has been appointed curator of Spotlight, the section of Frieze Masters in London and Frieze New York aimed at presenting works by noted artists of the 20th century. Kim comes to Frieze from REDCAT gallery in Los Angeles and more recently the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where she was senior curator of visual arts from 2011 to 2013. As an independent curator since late 2013, Kim curated a solo exhibition by Mark Bradford at Rockbund Art Museum and a show of Paulo Bruscky’s work at Galeria Nara Roesler Galerie in São Paolo. In Asia last year, Kim served on the advisory committee for Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and was involved in selecting artists for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award. She was also on the advisory committee for 2014 Media City Seoul, having co-curated the event in 2010. It is expected that Kim will bring a wider perspective to Frieze Spotlight based on her work in the US and with South American and Asian art. Currently Kim is the curator of an exhibition, Happy Together, which recently opened at Tina Kim Gallery’s new space on 21st street in New York.
We have just come to the end of Frieze week in New York. What did you see apart from the fair?
I saw the excellent shows at MoMA including the powerful Jacob Lawrence Migration Series, Latin American Architecture and the Yoko Ono retrospective, as well as Tseng Kwong Chi at Grey Art Gallery and the new Whitney Museum.
To date you have been working in contemporary art between the US and Asian countries—mainly Korea. What is your experience of working in London, and what do you feel are the specific conditions you will be addressing there as a curator for Frieze Art Fair? Read the rest of this entry →
Frieze New York has drifted to a close. “Not too exciting,” remarked one New York gallerist, and indeed, the atmosphere was not frenzied. Though a complete consensus is near impossible to reach for these events (and notwithstanding proclamations of success by the usual suspects), the impression this week was of a slow fair, with fewer sales than last year and not as many collectors seeking out works, even on opening day.
It would seem that the numbers of European collectors and institutions were significantly down. And no wonder—Art Brussels, Berlin Gallery Weekend and the Venice Biennale happened in quick succession this year, and Venice was only last week; many likely opted to save themselves for Liste and Basel rather than make the trip stateside. Frieze has clearly suffered this time round apparently from this gridlock of art events. This is an issue which can only continue as international organizations jostle for the attention of a rarefied crowd, each wanting to tempt the same prime group (at least in Europe and America). Perhaps the art circuit will soon be forced to embrace colder weather in winter as the spring calendar becomes more and more congested.
The other side of this coin is that Frieze New York this year inadvertently became a very local fair, with New York galleries fairly content (if not actually overwhelmed), and because had the luck to avoid air travel and shipping. Their collectors made some purchases both in and through the booths as a point of contact. Relative to other fairs in the city, Frieze certainly overpowered the Armory early on, and it was clear that energy continues to flow in its direction in New York. NADA, the Art Dealers Association fair downtown which in the lead-up to the week was the most talked-about fair aside from Frieze, garnered attention but didn’t necessarily justify expectations. This year, NADA had a less edgy display in general than previous editions and a lot of quite agreeable painting.
With his current exhibition at James Cohan in New York, the British-Nigerian artist and self-described “post-colonial hybrid” Yinka Shonibare MBE departs from themes of cultural identity which have characterized his work to date. He has employed materials as wide-ranging as painting (for which he originally trained), film, photography and performance, but is best known for figurative sculptures clothed in equally expressive printed fabrics. Shonibare, who was a Turner Prize nominee in 2004, and was awarded an MBE the same year, has risen to prominence with significant works including “How to Blow up Two Heads at Once” (2006)—a figurative sculpture which was part of the African Pavilion for the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 and “Gallantry and Criminal Conversation”—a large-sale installation featuring a suspended carriage and multiple figures for documenta 10 in 2002.
Iona Whittaker: Do you typically start out with a framework for a show to help you form the works, or is this a project you had had in mind for some time and were waiting for the right moment to execute?
Yinka Shonibare: It varies a lot—I don’t have a fixed way of doing it. Sometimes I get inspiration from the context. This show is happening in New York. I’m interested in issues around climate change and at that very location there was a flood in the galleries; there’s also rising sea levels, and so I took that as a starting point.
IW: Were any of your works stored there at the time?
YS: Luckily they had taken a lot of work out of the gallery; they were not as affected as the other galleries. They managed to remove a lot of valuable works from the premises.
IW: Can you tell me about the show itself in your own words, and how it will look in the gallery?
YS: It’s quite odd in a sense that you encounter quite gorgeous-looking ballerinas. There’s a degree of deception and metaphor because when you see ballerinas you wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about menacing gods. You might just think that they are beautiful ballerinas. But there is a tradition of artists drawing on images of ballerinas; of course Degas is a very well-known artist who did that. But of course, these ballerinas are Greek gods, and they have weapons as well. They have some things you might associate with gods like the lightning; then a few of them also have guns behind their backs; it’s something menacing. And I want deliberately to change their genders; Greek gods are male gods, and the ballerinas in the exhibition are female. Another side to the exhibition is the escape side; once we’ve destroyed the earth then there is the need to find other places to go to. So there’s an astronaut.
IW: I wanted to ask you about that anomalous figure.
YS: Yes, I’m calling him a “refugee astronaut” so he has got all of his worldly possessions on his back and is seeking new oases. And there are two butterfly kids and that I guess is about metamorphosis and transformation; you might interpret that in different ways. They’re going to transform themselves and fly away, or . . . I wanted this show to have a kind of poetic feel—a light feel as well as a dark underbelly so that on one hand you have comfort, and then you realize that these figures are not so pretty after all. The whole thing is quite menacing.
IW: It seems to be a fight and then a flight—both are inevitable and follow on from one another. I think what’s menacing about it is perhaps this inevitability. There are beautiful and apocalyptic figures and an astronaut. It seems to say “Here are the portents and here is the displaced.” It’s like a narrative, in a way.
YS: Yes. [He considers for a moment] The point really is not to make something that literal, but also to—I’ve become increasingly interested in the power of the imagination in my art and the poetry, as opposed to a literal illustration of politics.
IW: Right, or direct references.
YS: As you know, the world is becoming more violent, more nasty, with all these weather issues and war and so on. It’s actually becoming more difficult to represent, I think. And then there is the competition for resources. And climate change doesn’t necessarily help that process along. We will be short of water also, and those are difficult issues to deal with.
IW: Do you view your work with any sense of responsibility? I don’t mean in terms of materials, I mean in terms of messages to people.
YS: Not necessarily, because I don’t really want to be moral—I don’t want it to be a kind of moral crusade. Art is a place, in a way, to escape to. And aspects of life are of course reflected in art. The point about art is that it does not replicate life directly.
IW: It’s a response, whatever form it may take.
YS: Yes, of course, and I don’t ever negate the benefits of entertainment, either. For me that’s not a bad thing at all.
IW: So if we look at this show and the theme of environmentalism, you’re not putting it up there as a message. It’s something more immediate as a response to what’s going on. It’s not something that’s trying to project concern. I’m hearing something more instantaneous—a creative response to what simply “is”.
YS: Yes, I guess it’s a visual equivalent of a poem.
IW: You work is highly conceptual in a lot of ways, but as you have mentioned and as is clear, it’s also incredibly visual—it’s theatrical, striking and memorable. I wondered how you go about distilling your ideas into these visual forms; how do you go about it and how do you approach the balance between the idea and almost the distraction of the beautiful materials you use.
YS: It can be incredibly difficult sometimes to actually come up with things; you have to constantly edit yourself and you often don’t end up with the ideas that you started with. The problem with it really is mainly that we are in the 21st Century, so the world is full of clichés and everything has been done before. That is very difficult—how do you understand what’s been done before, avoid clichés and produce complex works? I like to use fabric. I don’t want to promote any kind of ideology in my work—either the left or the right—and that usually is the starting point for me not to be anybody’s messenger. Within that, I try to so something that is complex but that is also rich enough to be understood from different angles.
IW: So you have the immediately visual, and then many more layers you wish to incorporate.
YS: Yes, absolutely, because it’s important that it’s not reduced to a form of journalism. After all, I trained as a painter, so I am very interested in form and aesthetics; I’m also very interested in ideas, concepts. The point is to marry those two things. Of course there are other issues, for example why I started using the fabrics and how those relate to my background. They have become a kind of signature—a language—my own kind of Esperanto, if you like.
IW: Earlier in your practice you were focused on language deriving from themes; it has proved an adaptable language, for example to these most recent works. Can you talk to us about its role in your current work?
YS: Yes, I mean, it’s about trying to marry the historical and contemporary.
IW: It seems the case now that you marry a kind of ancient mythology with very contemporary issues; it does create a sort of narrative. But I wondered why you find this link particularly potent?
YS: Myth was there to explain things that we couldn’t explain before science—after all, Greek mythology is pre-Enlightenment, so science has explained a lot of things to us. But I feel value in folklore, I think, because folklore is tradition. I don’t think folklore can be disregarded or dismissed offhand. I think it’s a vital part of human culture. To return to folklore is important for the present; I think we have lost something in the over-emphasizing of the enlightened and the scientific.
IW: The rational.
YS: Yes, and I think that as result we lost a sense of community.
IW: I would add that we tend to approach things in a news-like manner; we are subject to a constant barrage of news; perhaps our impression of the bigger picture or wider nuances is being distracted from or run over, as it were. It is something to do with how stories which can travel might be getting lost.
YS: Yes. I remember when I was young, growing up in Nigeria, I did experience older people telling us stories, and I used to listen very attentively to those stories; a lot of them are about the ‘mischievous’ ones. I used to enjoy those kinds of stories very much. I’m 52 years old—even Nigeria is very westernized now anyway, and it would be sitting in front of the TV, just watching soaps and things. Whereas I listened to grandparents telling me stories, and they are very memorable. I don’t even know if that contributed to some of my interests later on in life—
IW: Your sculptural figures are not unlike storytellers—figures from which one might learn things.
YS: Yes, and in a funny kind of way, at this stage of my life I’m turning to folklore, fairytales and the imagination—those kinds of things. Whereas earlier in my career I think my work was very much embedded in post-modern theory and a lot of that kind of discourse around contemporary art. But I think I’m actually feeling a lot freer to explore other kinds of narratives now.
IW: Does it affect your feelings and response to your works when you see them displayed in the gallery, as opposed to in your studio?
YS: I think by the time an exhibition is up, the artist is in a different zone. You’ve moved on. In a way, for an artist, every exhibition is in past tense. You’ve got new thoughts.
IW: And what are you loyal to, always?
YS: I think it’s always avoiding one-liners. I want the works, in themselves, to always retain a degree of complexity and to argue within themselves.
Frieze has established itself as the freshest major art fair—a condensation of both youthful (among them Antenna Space, Clearing and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler) and blue chip (Gagosian, White Cube, Hauser and Wirth et al) contemporary galleries in a fashionable, un-stuffy atmosphere. Here, you can find barely dry paint from artists who may not have had their first solo show (see the “Frame” and “Focus” sections for emerging artists and galleries). While attitudes to Frieze Art Fair in London—where it began eleven years ago—can come across as somewhat jaded (its longevity there and changes in the market have contributed to a more conservative feel), in New York, which this week sees its fourth edition of the fair, one senses more pure expectations. This attitude was palpable in March at the Armory show, New York’s local fair, where many participating galleries were already gazing beyond their booths to Frieze; some admitted to having saved the best works for it. That said, these expectations must be met and maintained by organizers and galleries alike for this stateside branch of the fair—last year’s edition did not pass without some criticism for slightly repetitive or safe displays and overcrowding by both visitors and works.
Despite being the only art fair with “fair” in its title, the organizers claim for Frieze more democratic reach; the ambition to reach multiple audiences Read the rest of this entry →
Yesterday evening, two new solo exhibitions opened at Klein Sun Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district. “Awakening of the Flesh” is the second solo exhibition at the gallery by Cui Xiuwen, and assembles new abstract paintings. In the smaller rear rooms of the gallery and in the stairwell, “On Parole” displays pieces from Wu Yuren’s A Sentence, Heritage (both of which are overt in referencing Wu’s stance against the eviction of artists from Beijing’s 798 district in 2010 and his ensuing imprisonment), and the more opaque Sink and The Truth is Conflict series.