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Leo Xu / Shanghai

Among the most promising art dealers in contemporary China, Leo Xu has gathered together some of the boldest figures in the country’s emerging art scene: Cheng Ran, Li Shurui, Liu Chuang, Cui Jie, Cheng Wei and Guo Hongwei, just to name a few. Xu talks with Flash Art about his early career and future projects, and shares his vision for a strong art community in China.

You opened the gallery in 2011 in Shanghai. How has your program — and your expectations — developed since then?

The reason I opened the gallery was to stimulate artists I admired and had been following for a while. I was interested in helping them throughout their careers, so I quit my job at James Cohan Gallery early in 2011 and opened my studio, both editorial and curatorial. But I found it hard to maintain. Not many people are receptive to editorial content when it comes to acquiring art. We received, on the other hand, many honors and fellowships. Through this first step I gave my artists a platform, a headquarters in which to experiment. It didn’t have to be big. I ran this space and simultaneously worked on placing the shows somewhere else. I just wanted the gallery to be accessible.

Accessible in what sense?

Geographically, not curatorially. I am focused on linking the program to theater, music, schools and even to public spaces such as shopping malls. Integrating art with peoples’ lives is what engages me the most.

When you were studying fine art, was the thought of opening a commercial gallery on your radar?

I never had such thoughts. My ex bosses from Chambers Fine Art and James Cohan always had this prophecy about me, that I would open my own gallery. I hesitated, as I always thought being a dealer involved an incredible amount of work. When I curated a couple of exhibitions at James Cohan, I felt very connected to some of the artists I selected. Their work was immediate and reflected our times. It also spoke to the media and reacted to it. But I also thought they were underappreciated, so I felt they needed someone to help them channel all those important issues.

Did your work experience at private galleries fortify your relationship with current collectors who follow the gallery?

I think it helped, but also it became difficult, because my experience with James Cohan was wonderful and I learned a lot, but that was nevertheless an old-fashioned way of art dealing that does not really apply to new Chinese standards. I had a hard time with collectors when I used similar techniques I learned at the previous gallery. It’s too Westernized. I think I attracted collectors who love the vision of our program, who enjoy working with us. I believe I am a peculiar art dealer. Some people do not really work with me because they find me hard to work with.

Many young galleries are now inclined to work with historical artists and their estates. Are you also considering this?

I think I’m not interested in many formulas or strategies. Digging out estates — that’s not my mission. Our gallery wants to challenge each of the artists we work with by taking them out of their comfort zone. I think mainly we focus on transplanting artists’ ideas onto a bigger picture. That is why we collaborate a lot with urban planners, architects, we advise them and come up with projects together. We are selling ideas rather than sculptures or objects. We are more like an agency than a gallery.

Have any of your artists ever failed with such ambitious projects? Some of them are rather young.

You know, I have a wall in the gallery called “The wall of failure.” One of my artists started a mural and then he couldn’t finish it. My assistant was about to remove it, and I asked her to keep it. It’s beautiful; it will remind us of a few failures throughout the gallery’s life.

The use of archival material as a primary subject is very common within the young generation of artists in China. Why this obsession?

I think they are obsessed with identity, not archival material. They use archives to express their confusion with identity. I think artists need partners to develop, to challenge and provoke them, not to babysit them. They need people to make them understand what is performative, not only as an expression, but also as a final outcome of each of their works.

by Gea Politi

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Displacements and Contradictions Biennial of the Americas / Denver

Speaking about the Americas in the context of contemporary art is complex and problematic when geography does not necessitate a shared identity, but rather the diversity within this identity; asking any curator, historian or artist to conceive of a project that pulls the Americas together in discussion is a near impossibly ambitious task. The city of Denver, however, has taken on this challenge.

The Biennial of the Americas was founded in 2010 with the intention of exploring global issues through action and discussion, while also opening the city of Denver to actively participate in critical thinking and debate. Now in its third iteration, curated by Lauren Wright, this year’s theme is “NOW!” — a single word to shift the focus onto issues that define the current reality throughout the Americas. This time Mexico City played an important role, an obvious choice since the cosmopolitan city center has been gaining increasing notoriety within the art world internationally. This biennial was about paying attention to current and real circumstances, both divergent, connective and everywhere in between.

One such connection was the inaugural Biennial Ambassadors Residency program and the subsequent exhibition “Vis-à-Vis.” In the spirit of fostering connections between Denver and other cities in the Americas, a small residency program was created between the non-profit institutions ArtPlant and SOMA, of Denver and Mexico City respectively. Out of the program four artists were chosen, two from each corresponding city, to trade places and live in the partner city for ten weeks while selecting and producing individual projects for exhibition as part of the Biennial. The artists acted as cultural ambassadors, were encouraged to actively integrate themselves with the art worlds in both cities, and documented their time week by week on a public blog.

In Denver, what I saw were the clear results of displacements and contradictions that occur when an artist is completely removed from the comfort zone and plopped into a totally unexpected environment. Specifically in the context of a discussion between the Americas, the resulting exhibition proved to be the physical embodiment of the theoretical framework that surrounded the entire biennial itself.

Walking through the exhibition with curators Carla Herrera-Prats and Adam Gildar, the resulting conversation proved a level of mentorship and guidance that allowed the artists to retain their own individual voices while placing them in a collective exhibition. I also learned of the importance placed on process: immersion in each city was as important as the creation of each of the final projects. Thus, the resulting exhibition is a strong confluence of the four artistic voices that ebb and flow through each of the projects as well as individually. There was also an energy of accomplishment in the room. It was clear each of the artists had carefully considered each of their decisions throughout every step of the process.

Painter Melissa Furness produced an impressive three hundred paintings that serve as an anecdotal narrative — both conceptually and literally — of her time in Mexico City. The paintings are exhibited as a large mound, acting as a monument to the experience, the passing of time, and the narrative of a personal experience — a confusing tangle representing the life of a foreigner living in a confusing city. Multi-media artist Cristobal Gracia employed a variety of media to produce a smart piece that exposes ideology and the differing contexts surrounding a specific public sculpture by Herbert Bayer. Almost identical iterations exist in both Denver and Mexico City; the Mexico version, however, was created during the highly polemical year of 1968 and acts as a historical reminder of the failed state of modernism, massacre and general political unrest during the time of its creation. In Denver it is endearingly dubbed “The French Fry Stack.” It holds no polemical weight, and resides in an empty parking lot. Gracia’s installation explores the cultural contexts and histories of both cities, while Daniel Monroy Cuevas’s video installation, shot in an abandoned drive-in movie theater, metaphorically explores the spaces between the changing landscapes in an area that was once the U.S./Mexico Border. Indeed, both monumentality and space are recurring themes in the exhibition, and the site-specific installation by Matt Scobey fits poetically into this narrative. A collection of over 3,000 talavera tiles hand-crafted by the artist himself sit quietly along four walls and wrap around two corners in opposite ends of the gallery space. Meticulously fabricated and visibly undergoing a process of decay instigated by the artist, the tiles are reflective of areas of decay in Mexico City itself while they simultaneously respond to the physical gallery space in Denver, acting as objects living somewhere between both cities.

The inauguration of the exhibition was a night of incredible camaraderie. Indeed, the Ambassadors program had achieved its goal of unifying two cities in unexpected ways, and familiar faces were spotted all over the room from Mexico City and Denver, while relationships and mentorships were rekindled and revisited. An energy was present that reflected both cities. If the main goal of the Biennial of the Americas is to foster artistic conversation and exchange, it wildly exceeded its goals with the Ambassadors Residency Program alone.

by Leslie Moody Castro

(Special thanks to: Carla Herrera-Prats, Adam Gildar, Devon Dikeou and Shawn Michael Taylor)


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Alex Israel Almine Rech / Paris

Alex Israel’s second solo show at Almine Rech Gallery, following “Thirty” in 2012, features an ensemble of two self-portraits, three “Lens” works and a display with a “Sky Backdrop” painting. Formal elements of Southern California — its physical landscape, architecture and consumer goods — are still the main subject of the exhibition.

Enlarged and frameless, three eight-foot-tall sunglass lenses made of UV-protective plastic are leaned against the gallery walls. These lenses are presented in a range of the same colors used in the new “Sky Backdrop” painting: yellow, orange and purple. Their surfaces are reflective and transparent, refined and seductive, calling to mind the “finish fetish” art scene. Intimate and monumental, they have a surreal presence.

In the second room, a small polychrome sculpture representing a Chevy Corvette stationed near a cactus is displayed on a white pedestal in front of a large stucco “Sky Backdrop” that evokes a horizontal cinematic expanse (rather than the Spanish Revival windows or doorways from the homes of Hollywood’s Golden Age that Israel uses in other works). Once a prop, the Corvette has been reproduced in painted bronze. It’s a performing object, an “actor for a part” making possible a cinematic gesture: an ensemble to be experienced through an absent camera. The viewer’s experience is almost choreographed. Israel’s role is “directorial.”

The two self-portraits exhibited are the latest updates of Israel’s logo — a silhouette of the artist’s profile. Here they frame two stereotypical images from California culture: a seagull flying, and a view of the U.S. Open of Surfing. These self-portraits are markers, a logo for a brand that is Alex Israel. By staging himself, Israel is the main subject and the context for his work, using the language of branding to clarify and communicate these conditions.

by Timothée Chaillou

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Leopold Thun on Emalin

Emalin is a nomadic, pop-up exhibition project that mounts shows in a range of spaces: from highly decorated hotel rooms, as in Athena Papadopoulos’s presentation during Frieze 2014, to Nicholas Cheveldave’s show in an old Gianfranco Ferré showroom in Milan. Flash Art talked to co-founder and director Leopold Thun.

How did the project originate?

I began the project with Jasmine Picot Chapman while studying in Scotland. Initially it started out as a magazine that tested the boundaries between photographic editions and a sort of DIY fanzine of photographers we liked. Once we moved to London we realized that the format of a magazine wasn’t enough, and we soon put up our first exhibition in Switzerland.

What is your mission?

We aim to produce shows in new contexts, both for the artists we work with and ourselves. This ideally means that they take greater risks with the works they produce, or step in a new direction from what they usually do. At the same time, we really get to understand their practice more in depth and collaborate with them using a holistic approach that allows them input on the environment in which their work is going to be shown.

What are the structural challenges of your model?

There are several structural challenges such as increased costs due to shipping, temporarily living in a space that isn’t necessarily home, and renovating or adapting the spaces we aim to show at. Our endurance is sometimes tested, too, as each time a new network has to be either created or tapped into: no one likes an empty opening.

The dates of show have in certain cases coincided with art fairs, encouraging new audiences to engage with the works of emerging artists, often London based, and fostering a more international conversation. Can you say more about this?

I must say that this was more often a coincidence rather than a planned decision. For my last exhibition with Nicholas Cheveldave we decided to show his latest body of work in Italy, as it deals with interesting aspects of American coffee culture, which stands in direct contrast to Italy’s. Initially the show was meant to be in Naples, Italy’s coffee stronghold, but ultimately we got offered this wonderful space in Milan, and MiArt was happening at the same time. Of course I do enjoy when an international audience visits the projects, but the local audience should always stay at the forefront. That’s why the exhibitions often stay open longer, well beyond the traveling circus of the art world, and try to engage with their immediate surroundings.

What’s upcoming?

I’m currently staying at Fabian Marti’s TwoHOTEL in Bahia, Brazil, with the London-based painter Stefania Batoeva and the Brazilian artist Adriano Costa. I think that this time I can be sure that the international conversation won’t overshadow the local one.

by Attilia Fattori Franchini

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Abdelmonem Alserkal on the Alserkal Avenue / Dubai

Mr. Abdelmonem bin Eisa Alserkal gets edgy when he’s called a patron of the arts. Unassuming by nature, discreet by upbringing, he has nonetheless masterminded one of Dubai’s most dynamic cultural assets — the eponymous gallery “neighborhood” set in the grimy underbelly of the city’s industrial zone like some cool art oasis.

From a cluster of galleries in 2007 dotted between garages and tire shops, Alserkal Avenue is now poised to double in size. As of Autumn 2015, some 76,000 m2 of new, Hollywood-back-lot-style spaces will welcome international heavyweights like Leila Heller Gallery, as well as some local luminaries, such as decade-old The Third Line. This ambitious construction has been mirrored by an equally exuberant programming activity, the most visible of which was the Safina Radio Project — a boat-cum-recording studio navigating Venice waterways during this year’s Biennale.

Mr. Alserkal’s snug, understated office, enlivened by Tintin paraphernalia and Paul Smith doodads, belies his position in one of the United Arab Emirates’ most enterprising families, instrumental in establishing the country’s utilities and infrastructure. Yet for all its industriousness, the Alserkal family is decidedly low-key. True to his pedigree, Mr. Alserkal does not trumpet his achievements, but rather embraces the challenges ahead.

What does an arts “neighborhood” mean today? If we look at Paris’s 13th arrondissement, the East End in London or Milan’s Lambrate, they are dwindling landscapes compared to what was planned. What sustains your belief in this format in Dubai?

The neighborhoods you mention are scattered. Here, we are all under one family, one management. The first part of Alserkal Avenue, which started in 2007, grew organically, alongside the development of Dubai’s art scene. As this scene evolved, we were approached by a lot of new talent who saw Alserkal Avenue as a place where they wanted to present their ideas. They understood the value of community support, and they wanted to be part of it. The members of the initial community wanted more space, so the new expansion stemmed from this demand. It is a curated expansion, so it provides continuity to the community that has existed since 2007. It will be more sustainable than the neighborhoods you mention.

Why are you investing so heavily in international visibility with projects like the Safina Radio Project?

I believe we are providing a platform for regional and local initiatives — artists, art galleries, creative — to be visible internationally. We have always housed homegrown talent. Now we are extending the platform for them to participate more deeply in the international art world. In this respect, we are acting more like an arts organization. We have done well in supporting the commercial side; now we want to contribute to supporting actual arts creation through our commissions, and to supporting artists internationally through our galleries. [At Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014, Alserkal Avenue supported Jacob’s Ladder — a performance work, referencing helicopter evacuation in conflict zones, by artist Shahpour Pouyan, represented by Alserkal-based gallery Lawrie Shabibi — Ed.]

Is this a new positioning? Has Alserkal Avenue outgrown its role as “neighborhood” to become a privately endowed institution?

We want to pursue a new role as an arts organization. There are still many gaps in the Dubai art scene. We want to create opportunities for the talent base here, and the possibilities are endless. We achieve this through our homegrown programs like the Safina Radio Project, our joint commissions with Art Dubai and our own commissions, our partnerships with foundations abroad, our educational projects, the upcoming artists’ residencies… It is no longer about the physical space, but about this content we are building, the substance we didn’t have before. We are no longer a neighborhood. We are becoming an arts organization. That is where we want to be.

Do you feel there is an overlap between what you intend to do and initiatives by other local players like Art Dubai, with its own agenda of residencies and commissions?

Everyone is doing their own part — Art Dubai, Dubai Culture — and there is an opportunity for us as an arts organization. In terms of commissions, for example, our mission is very clear: to support experimental media that is not at all commercially supported — experimental work, sound installations, public art, performance. But we are also building a cultural destination. Among the new initiatives will be a theater, art cinema and educational spaces. So it expands the arts.

Which is more important for you: that people engage with the cultural content in Alserkal Avenue, or that it is seen as a desirable destination?

Content is extremely important for us, but the programming is new. In the first year it will be about forming our own voice. We want to be part of the art history in this part of the world. Ten years from today, we want people to refer back to commissions we did. We want to be part of that timeline. But we are just starting.

by Kevin Jones

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International Currency Lodos / Mexico City

Having grown up in a post 9/11 world, millennial artists like Noah Barker, the curator of the group show “International Currency,” don’t voice resistance (as rage has long been turned into another banal nutrient for the Matrix), but rather display traces of elegant self-respect as the world finally collapses into chaos.

Their art is made of modest, symbolic gestures that seek to establish a relationship with their opinionated predecessors, and they use opacity as a means of counteracting the network’s ubiquitous craving for transparency.

Liam Gillick’s video Heckle (2014) is a portrait of a decaying pier on a Greek island: turquoise sea and sky, white plastic chairs waiting for off-season tourists. Unrelated to the imagery, the soundtrack comprises various forms of “heckling” — the noise of waves washing ashore, an indistinct clamor of protest during Occupy Wall Street, a free-jazz concert. These sounds are superimposed over long, factual still shots like distant rumors, evoking the occasional collusion of emancipatory agendas that forms of spectacle and activism sometimes share. Cameron Rowland’s almost unnoticeable work, Constituent (2014), consists of the copper wire from a couple of electrical circuits in the gallery, which Rowland has had an electrician render visible. Copper smuggling is a recurrent subject in Rowland’s practice: what interests the artist is the potential currency that this material gains due to its increasing value as a raw material. The final work in the show, Detroit Rubble (2015), is a set of construction remnants that Detroit-born artist Scott Reeder asked the gallery to collect from around its neighborhood and to paint in bright complementary colors. As cited in the press release, they are intended to make visual and literal reference to the cobblestones of 1968 Paris.

The philosophical current of speculative realism is to propose an update of a millenary, ontologically oriented conception of the universe as a means of understanding the ways that technology has revolutionized our world over the past ten years, in the process granting objects and phenomena a dystopic subjectivity as collateral damage. How scary then to realize that the point of view in the press release is that of “capital,” not the “curator”: “Art doesn’t force my hand. Instead, I bring it together. My ideas fill its difference as we share our present and indeterminate future.”

by Dorothée Dupuis

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