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Outside ART021 and West Bund / Shanghai Art Week

Throughout the week of Art021 and West Bund (the two fairs trumpeting Shanghai’s unofficial art week), I found myself guiding people while remarking on gallery relocations, the rise and fall of different art districts and the spooky past of West Bund as the largest execution ground during the Cultural Revolution. And then there were moments when I was surprised to find a brand new institution about which I had no clue, leaving me embarrassed and seeking help from the internet. Wandering the streets of Shanghai during art week feels like navigating a sprawling infrastructure of imploding newness. Almost every space smells newly renovated, and every exhibition is an artist’s first solo on the mainland.

Most young institutions along the Bund safely exhibit solo shows of well-established, non-Chinese artists. While one might view this trend as the new normcore in Shanghai’s art scene, it enables the third Hugo Boss Asia Art exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum to stand out as an absolute highlight of the season. For the first time, Rockbund has addressed its spatial constraints and reduced the number of exhibition finalists from six to four — Li Ming, Tao Hui, Yu Ji and Robert Zhao — giving each a separate floor to present new and old works. The result is an exceptional presentation. Here, each participating artist is a master of their practice: Yu Ji’s psycho-geographical study of the urban environment, which subtly bleeds into her adept play with rich sculptural materials; Tao Hui’s longstanding investigation into melodramatic form and the possibilities for universalized experience via networked visual culture; Zhao Renhui’s artistic appropriation of the language and conventions of science in order to investigate how history — both natural and social — can be constructed by existing systems; and Li Ming’s daring multidisciplinary restructuring of how the exhibition space affects the spectator’s perception of place and time. The latter was named winner of the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award by a jury panel of six artists and curators.

After a considerable number of galleries moved to West Bund, Antenna Space, which advocates a strong selection of local and international artists, including Guan Xiao and Nancy Lupo, is now generally regarded as the placeholder of the M50 creative district. Its fall exhibition, “Wu Tsang: Sustained Glass,” upholds that reputation. (At first, I felt a bit ethically uneasy including it in this report due to my involvement in producing the exhibition as Tsang’s research assistant, but it really stood out to me and most people I’ve talked to, so here’s a note to clarify.) The exhibition consists of a new two-channel video work titled We hold where study (2017), which Tsang developed in collaboration with poet and longstanding collaborator Fred Moten, along with a series of stained-glass and lightbox works. The exhibition’s critical intent is fuelled by references to the precarious condition of marginalized cultures in today’s sociopolitical crisis — particularly that of African American culture, as addressed in a video piece that clearly references the recent shooting death of Michael Brown. The exhibition marks China’s increasing interest in black cultural appropriation; the ongoing discrimination among Han-dominated peoples against black immigrants and religious minorities (such as the Muslim Hui) in cities like Shanghai make the discussion all the more urgent. Yet, instead of falling into didacticism, Tsang uses glass — a metaphorically rich material that connotes queer trauma in the Chinese language as well as imagination and communion in Western literature — to convey these concerns in an open and evocative spatial installation. The pain, rage and hope that’s left unspoken is palpable.

Over the past year, a mini art hub has been growing in the center of Shanghai’s former French Concession, with the inauguration of Capsule Gallery, the relocation of BANK Gallery and, now, the new gallery VACANCY located a one-minute walk away from Closing Ceremony, a unique photography bookstore open only on weekends and run by Shanghai-based self-publishing studio Same Paper.

Sociality as a central concern extends beyond Tsang’s exhibition at Antenna Space. Wang Xu and Cici Wu, founders of the New York gallery PRACTICE, make their curatorial debut at Capsule Gallery with “Scraggly Beard Grandpa,” which was being hyped by my close friends even before its opening, most of whom either knew the curators from their time in New York or who have spent time studying and living abroad and thus can relate to the always-ambivalent feeling of communion and displacement. Xu and Wu, who are also artists themselves, invited twelve artists (and alumni of their residency program in New York) to present new works, asking audiences to trace the marks that a memory of a bygone space has left on each artist’s practice. In certain instances, like the sculptural dialogue between Irini Miga’s fragile, hole-in-the-wall installation Landscape for a Thought (2017) and João Vasco Paiva’s The Last Kauai Oo Bird I and II (2017), a sense of communicability is particularly strong. Whereas other works, like Zheng Yuan’s exhaustive video essay, Game (2017), on evolving perspectives in video games, and Xinyi Cheng’s quiet paintings, feel somewhat unaffected by the curatorial premise. An unspoken naiveté may underlie PRACTICE’s celebration of friendship, but in our greatly accelerated, teleological time, there is perhaps much to gain from this sense of purposelessness.

Over at West Bund, in the six-month-old space of Edward Malingue’s Shanghai branch, sandwiched between MadeIn Gallery and Don Gallery, Taiwanese artist Chou Yu-Cheng has sworn to fill the gallery with the purest air in town. With a title that plays with today’s hashtag keyword economy while referencing The System of Objects by Jean Baudrillard, “Refresh, Sacrifice, New Hygiene, Infection, Clean, Robot, Air, Housekeeping, www.ayibang.com, Cigarette, Dyson, Modern People” brings together paintings, sculptures, performances, brand sponsorship, robots and an app operating system to probe the aesthetics of “hygiene” — a set of practices that has grown in tandem with the diseases of modernity. The gallery space is divided into three sections by a sky-blue platform in the middle, on top of which rests a pile of oversized dining utensils and a cleaning bucket. The left side of the platform recalls a typical gallery setting, with a series of sculpted objects reminiscent of home-furnishing accessories mounted onto the wall; to the right side of the platform, a dozen Dyson Pure purifying fans, capable of capturing 99.95% of particles as small as .3 microns, and a team of robot vacuum cleaners tirelessly guard the space. The exhibition is further accompanied by a weekly performance at an undisclosed hour, when a cleaning lady, hired through the popular mobile app “ayibang,” cleans the art objects on view. Over the last two weeks of the exhibition, the artist will remove all the sculptures, leaving behind an empty gallery space with only the cleaning equipment and the display for the cleaning service app. By highlighting typically unseen processes related to the display of artworks in a contemporary gallery — the conditioning of air and other measurable aspects of its pedicured environment — Chou’s exhibition is a performative deconstruction of the gallery space that furthers his longstanding engagement with the social dimension of aesthetics.

Upstairs from Edward Malingue, Don Gallery’s tenth anniversary exhibition, “Shanghai Dandy,” proposes dandyism as the creative spark driving a thriving generation of Shanghai-based artists. While the link to the urban flaneur is more obscure in some works than others, here we finally have an exhibition, from one of the oldest contemporary art galleries in the city, that takes a stab at a homegrown aesthetic. One block away at Yuz Museum is “Shanghai Galaxy II,” another exhibition that takes Shanghai as its muse. The exhibition is certainly cosmological in its scope, gathering an extended list of artists whose connection to Shanghai ranges from the unequivocal to the nearly nonexistent. But Ming Wong’s spectacular Next Year / L’Année Prochaine / 明年 (2016) is enough to provoke a poetic reflection on Shanghai’s past and present. Loosely based on Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Renais’s avant-garde classic in which notions of place and time remain obscure throughout, Wong’s work restages several excerpts from the film in a Shanghai café named Marienbad and several other locations in the city bearing Western architectural influences. Wong performs both female and male protagonists and employs meticulous editing to continuously juxtapose his/her face and the surrounding mise-en-scène with those in the original film. In Shanghai, a hybrid metropolis where colonial architecture shoulders postmodern skyscrapers and youths with techno fever can leave a club to grab a local breakfast at sunrise, the destabilized perceptions of space and time Wong so evocatively captures are all too familiar.

Sergei and Stefan Tcherepnin’s sound performance at Ming Contemporary Art Museum delivered a spooky yet serendipitous end to an overloaded week. Titled “Ten Tones: Inside and Outside the Major-Minor,” the project was developed over the span of a year and marked the last act of “Proposals to Surrender,” an exhibition curated by Biljana Ciric that reflected on the place of performativity in an institutional context. Having set out to research the history of their grandmother Lee Hsien Ming, who was the first woman pianist to graduate from the Shanghai Music Conservatory in the 1930s, the Tcherepnin brothers were disappointed with the materials they found, which all spoke of her in relation to their grandfather, the famous composer Alexander Tcherepnin. In response, they developed a project that conjured the spirit of Ming, both as a central figure in their own family history and as someone who historically provided a musical bridge between China and the West. The story unfolded over two nights in an empty villa, where audiences were invited to piece together their own impressions of Ming through photos and sonic fragments that the Tcherepnin brothers arranged in makeshift installations throughout the building. Amid wayward, crisscrossing sound cues that irregularly played, lingered and abruptly vanished, multiple worlds seemed to converge, taking participants out of the vacant villa — a generic instantiation of vampiric real estate development — and into Shanghai’s modernist past. By playing a personal note in a minor key, the Tcherepnin brothers managed to conjure a community of ghosts, distilling romance from hauntology.

Perhaps it was the ghostly aura inside the empty house, or the fact that the Tcherepnin brothers’ grandmother and Ming Wong share the same first name, or perhaps a bit of both; but on my way home from Ming Contemporary Art Museum I was haunted by the yellowed photo of Lee Hsien Ming, and the face of Wong dissolving into that of Delphine Seyrig, the female protagonist of Last Year at Marienbad. Living through this city’s increasing acceleration, where multiple worlds densely converge, time feels truly out of joint. In her column for Kaleidoscope on the evolution of visual culture in Asia, Venus Lau, who also currently resides in Shanghai, speculates on a (re)turn to the underworld in our dystopian imaginations. At this moment, her chilling thought experiment feels particularly apt.

Alvin Jiahuan Li is a writer based in Shanghai, China, and a contributing editor for frieze and Ran Dian. From 2016 to 2017, Li worked as English editor for the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, where he co-curated the exhibition “The New Normal: China, Art, and 2017.”

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Jiwa / Jakarta Bienniale 2017

Jiwa (soul) is the conceptual framework behind the latest Jakarta Biennale, which proposes to place performance at center stage. Led by artistic director and performer Melati Suryodarmo, this edition is joined by curators Hendro Wiyanto, Annissa Gultom, Philippe Pirotte, and Vít Havránek, and much of the exhibition is comprised of new commissions. The team has established a clear curatorial premise, highlighting their interest in durational art and a wish to survey works from the archipelago that look beyond Javacentrism while pointing at regime-defying practices that deserve deepened art-historical research.

These concerns were carefully researched, leading to a renewed consideration of activist positions against the totalizing regime of Suharto, and the representation of syncretic forms of religion that were previously erased by the time of the Pancasila. Such is the case of the Bissu community, made up of the Buginese people of South Sulawesi, who have unique spiritual and societal beliefs with complex gender systems. Bissu members performed on the opening night, which included a screening of The Last Puang Matoa (2017), a film that addresses the murder of their last leader and looks at ongoing struggles of indigenous communities in the archipelago.

The diversity of the performance program was particularly notable, including various traditions and conceptual registers that informed the installations on display. Marintan Sirait restaged Butoh-inspired pieces from the 1990s, in which clay-covered bodies interacted with an installation of soil pyramids topped with yellow pigment. In the room next door, Ewa Kot’áková’s sculpture of a tree was activated by two performers who interpreted memories of becoming birds, expanding our understanding of Jiwa to that of pathological phenomenology and the social construct of illnesses.

On the previous evening, Darlane Litaay reinterpreted Papuan rites of fecundity by shivering to the sound of hypnotic synth drones. Before that, David Gheron Tretiakoff’s feedback trance ritual was performed over looped excerpts of Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1995), nearby the ghostly shadow of Luc Tuyman’s painting of a televised hologram, Twenty Seventeen (2017). As well as gestural narratives, storytelling was presented as a main form of local cultural expression. Audience favorite “Jiwa Laut” was interpreted and performed by Sumatran artist PM Toh, who improvised a sung narrative about a fisherman in a DIY cardboard scenario made with domestic utensils and stop-motion video projections.

The ceremonial quality of the works extended way beyond the mediumistic constraints of the performative realm. For example, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s fired clay and shell altar echoed voodoo trappings, and I Made Djirna’s labyrinthine installation of faces carved into lava rock, a brut gesture by this Balinese artist, was mirrored by the mesmerizing puppet silhouettes of Ni Tanjung, which resemble naive shadow theater figures.

Central to the Gudang Sarinah Ekosistem venue was a section dedicated to five artists focusing on installations and publications dedicated to activist Semsar Siahaan. This included paintings and excerpts from his latest graphic diaries; audio installations by experimental musician I Wayan Sadra, who challenged the melodic use of gamelan; Hendrawan Riyanto’s ritualized ceramics; and installations by Dolorosa Sinaga and Siti Adiyati. While highlighting radical figures in the country’s art scene, this section also acknowledged the need for further in-depth research on contemporary art history and the urgency of institutional action in a context of precarious museology.

At the Jakarta History Museum, a haunting critique of museology comes through in the film Sector IX B, Sleeping Sickness Prophylaxis (2015) by Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, in which an anthropologist’s observations on archival objects are compromised by hallucinations due to the effects of a tropical sleep disease. In this venue, located in the main square of Jakarta, the echo of colonialism resonated through several installations, as seventeenth-century garbed Nikhil Chopra developed an enthralling clay and rice mural painting of an ocean horizon, and Em’kal Eyongakpa presented a site-specific sound installation of the overlapping heartbeats of independence leaders in the prison space of the building. Next door, at the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics, Darwin-based aboriginal film collective Karabing captivated with the decolonizing power of their film WUTHARR: Saltwater Dreams (2016), which addresses land expropriation and resource sharing. Their work was also a focus of discussion throughout the Jiwa symposium on indigenous beliefs, spiritual life and the role of bodies as a part of change.

And despite the improvisational quality of some installations, which are slightly undermined by their materiality, the impact of this year’s edition of the Biennale is more challenging than ever, placing the visitor amid durational experiences while restoring the urge for spirited gestures. Here, the formless contour of the political body — or Jiwa — is in pure potency, coming to life through the shared medium of storytelling and the common passage of time. 

Margarida Mendes is a curator and activist based in Lisbon.

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a good neighbour / 15th Istanbul Biennial

Curated for the first time by two artists, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the fifteenth Istanbul Biennial may surprise those who expected a radical project — one grounded in the theatrical and humorous approach to institutional critique that has characterized the duo’s most accomplished interventions since the mid-1990s, such as opening a fake Prada store in the desert outside Marfa (Prada Marfa, 2005), or the staging of a play in which the actors are all notable twentieth-century sculptures (Drama Queens, 2007).

That is precisely the direction that Elmgreen & Dragset’s previous curatorial endeavors have followed: engaged to work on the Danish and Nordic pavilions at the 2009 Venice Biennale, the two transformed them into perfectly reconstructed domestic spaces, orchestrating, with their very recognizable imprint, the participation of another twenty-three artists and designers, each one of whom contributed to the hyperrealist mise-en-scène.

In Istanbul, instead, the duo have opted for a lighter touch: the exhibition is free of curatorial tricks, of a rigid and programmatic layout; it is spare, sincere, unburdened by theoretical superstructures. Even to a fault.

Grouped under the title “a good neighbour” — suggesting themes of home and proximity but also cohabitation, privacy and fear of the other — are works by fifty-six artists, thirty of which are new productions. Unlike the previous Biennial curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, which was spread across the city, including various hard-to-reach places, this edition is restricted to only six neighboring locations and can be visited without any particular exertion, taking one’s time with the works.

Some of these are notable: a mural by Latifa Echakhch, featuring the figures of protesters (reminiscent of Gezi Park’s demonstrators), that appears as though already corroded by time, on the verge of fading away; an installation by Lydia Ourahmane, with a live trumpet solo performed on the concrete frame structure of a house under construction, as a commentary on the environmental and social degradation of her native Algeria; a video by Erkan Özgen, showing a deaf-mute boy miming the Siege of Kobanî from which he’s escaped; or Alper Aydin’s installation, in which a bulldozer blade pushes branches and bits of chopped-down tree trunks in the corner of the gallery (another echo of Gezi, and of environmentalism as a metaphor for the struggle for human freedom). Monica Bonvicini’s Hausfrau Swinging, a 1997 video installation, is still incredibly current, especially in a country that is returning to discussions of whether a woman’s place is not in the home, and where domestic violence is on the rise.

Though the works just described might suggest otherwise, the Biennale’s references to Turkey’s current historical and political moment are never overt — a fact for which the curators have been criticized, as they have agreed to work on a large public event (albeit one organized by a private foundation, the IKSV) in a country where freedom of speech is increasingly restricted. In fact, subtle messages of dissent but also hope are disseminated throughout the programming. For example, as Elmgreen & Dragset told, in the choice to show Lee Miller’s photographs taken after the fall of Hitler — already seen at Documenta 13 — or to exhibit works by Liliana Maresca, the Argentinian artist who passed away in 1994, linked to the political events surrounding Argentina’s return to democracy in the 1980s. Pedro Gómez-Egaña’s large installation, which shows a secret, underground life taking place beneath the apparent order and decorum of a bourgeois interior, aptly expresses the state of the cultural scene in today’s Turkey (and wherever freedom is not guaranteed) as well as its determination to continue survive. Yet the most significant reflection prompted by the Biennial is of a universal nature, embedded in the deep wound that our era of walls, exclusions and social divisions has inflicted on the very concept of humanity. Choosing a theme of propinquity, coexistence, closeness, appears in this context like an invitation to take an interest in others, to look at and participate in lives taking place next to but also very far from our own.

A rather stark contrast to this minimalist but empathetic Biennial is offered by the sparkling Contemporary Istanbul fair, which coincided with the days of the Biennial’s opening. The co-presence of the two events, in addition to a healthy program of openings in public and private spaces, signaled that the energy — not least economic — which had made Istanbul one of the most animated cities of the international art scene is anything but extinguished. The fair, this year in its twelfth edition and headed by a new director, the London-based collector and curator Kamiar Maleki, is constantly improving in terms of both presence and quality; nonetheless, it still bears witness to the almost complete scission between the market-driven tastes represented by the fair and the conceptual radicality and aesthetic sophistication that the Biennial has been bringing to the city for thirty years — and that the best Turkish art amply incarnates.

by Cristiana Perrella

(Translated from Italian by Tijana Mamula)
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The New Spirit of New York Fashion Week

Change was welcomed this season by the New York Fashion Week press. As heavyweights Rodarte, Proenza Schouler, Thom Browne and Joseph Altuzarra left for Paris, critics such as Cathy Horyn and Anna Wintour amped up fervor for the new designer vanguard.

One could argue that this acknowledgment of emerging voices seemed delayed considering the city has been producing a cohort of young art-aligned designers since the early DIS magazine moment. Nevertheless, now that these fringe labels are gaining establishment recognition, do we need to reassess their unorthodoxy?

Is it right to analogize “emerging” with “experimental”? Eckhaus Latta, who have been designing since 2011, received accolades from Vogue for the “buzzy brand’s most coherent and accomplished collection yet.” Refinement in Vogue terms generally translates as greater buyer applicability. The label, known for an aesthetic of undoing (seams, hems, bodily fragmentation), produced their most done-up collection yet, rehashing their previous styles with less risk; look two could’ve been cut out from a COS collection. Yet unremitting is their notoriety for casting a slew of non-models — the S/S ’18 protagonist being the pregnant artist Maia Ruth Lee — rehearsing their position as a networked community of creatives.

Shayne Oliver’s relaunch of Helmut Lang was one of the most awaited shows of the week, bustling with industry professionals and an effervescent H.B.A. crowd. Since Lang’s departure in 2005, the label has operated in purgatory, producing one forgettable collection after another. Oliver dramatically upheaved the house with new fetishistic verve, one with harnesses and cock rings. It will be this verve, though, that will distance some. The brazen sloganeering that renders everything Supreme™ certainly won’t impress the essentialist Helmut Lang believers.

Telfar was one of the most provocative moments of the week, not because the designer delivered spectacle but instead thanks to his ongoing twelve-year-plus study of uniformity. Unlike other runway shows that entertained the appeal of gender fluidity through casting, Telfar Clemen’s societal investigations are grounded in what constructs a universal unisex. How does the ubiquity of the polo shirt function across gender and class? How do uniforms circumvent the temporality of themes? These are thoroughly interesting questions — questions that have placed him as a finalist for this year’s CFDA award. He also revealed the outfit he designed for the hamburger chain White Castle with the statement, “1 look on 12,000 models.” Vogue quotes him: “I want people to aspire to wear the same thing that the person serving them is wearing and to actually meet them.” An inventive proposal that expands the role of the fashion designer into new anthropological terrain.

What about the other fringe designers outside the aforementioned big three? One condition that seems to unify the new spirit of emerging design is the speed at which it can travel from the margins to the center. Learning how to work within the widening attention economy, young labels can seize global visibility through the quick assemblage of image-ready design. VFILES is good example of this system, which values the impact of the image in obvious design one-liners and gimmicks, and in doing so extracting the gains of social-media metrics. And despite Vogue’s Nick Remsen’s often scathing reviews of the cheap VFILESification of fashion, its traction can be demonstrated via the machine of clickbait fashion press, epitomized by i-D and Dazed. Within this schema of data aggregation, labels must be elementary.

Jacquemus’s influence cannot be understated here. Exaggerated silhouettes with a macro, uncomplicated design approach, appropriate for the consumption of the four-sided frame, can be seen across the likes of Vaquera, Matthew Adams Dolan and Luar. These clothes offer the quick gag of a giant sleeve or a floppy tie. Then again, at least these designers understand how to pull off clowning. The witless new collection of Adam Selman, who declares that “fashion should be fun and bold,” culminates as a banal denim and gingham Topshop spinoff series. Lou Dallas offered a nice reprieve from the macro approach with misadventures in woodland crafts. The designer’s use of dead stock fabrics, while a material practice, operated more as a conceptual gesture to remind us the lived process of cloth. The collection, presented at Bridget Donahue, felt like an exciting technical upgrade from her previous shows.

Is it crass to reference Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski’s endlessly referenced text The New Spirit of Capitalism? Then again, we’re dealing with a particularly crass fashion, one deemed bohemian through the use of non-models and gimmick virality. If emerging designers want to pursue experimentation, no longer can they simply work against standardized silhouettes; the challenge now is to frustrate the attention economy through which fashion at large is standardized.

by Matthew Linde

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Volcano Extravaganza 2017 / Naples, Stromboli

At a summer home tucked a stone’s throw away from the island’s humble center, Stromboli, Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece, is projected every night, regardless of how many people show up to watch. The venue is the very same location where the radiant Ingrid Bergman stayed during the film’s production — the love nest where she would allegedly meet with Rossellini for late-night rendezvous.

Perhaps this daily ritual keeps the memory of the film alive — a film that massively iconized a vivid Strombolian imagination. As Gilles Deleuze theorizes in Difference and Repetition (Columbia University Press, New York, 1994), it is the act of repetition that reveals the core essence of the subject at hand. It also generates difference whereby every iteration produces a different experience for the subject that bears witness to it: on the one hand, a fixed structure given by the soundness of essence; on the other, the mobility of subjective interpretation.

This discussion around Rossellini’s film could be extended to Volcano Extravaganza 2017, the summertime contemporary arts festival organized by Fiorucci Art Trust. Curated by director Milovan Farronato, the festival has been colonizing the dreamy Aeolian island for seven years now. In partnership with UK music enterprise The Vinyl Factory, the 2017 edition made its way to Naples, too.

This year’s “artistic leader” Eddie Peake presents “a constellation of performative acts” under the rubric “I Polpi” (The Octopuses), which collectively explore the body, its limits and its excesses; in addition to performances it includes site-specific murals in the Fiorucci Art Trust Stromboli location.

Peake, a British artist who graduated from the Royal Academy, explores themes of sexuality, language and self-portraiture. Less frequently, he focuses on reenactment and repetition (and therefore difference) — concepts that, by destructuring the notion of “variations on a theme,” make up the backbone of “I Polpi.”

In music, a variation on a theme is a relatively simple structure based on a melody presented in its original form and then successively reconsidered through variations. In “I Polpi,” Peake applies this strategy to his new performance To Corpse. In theater slang, “to corpse” means to involuntarily break character by hysterically laughing. He appropriates the term by making it the title of a series of five performances in which five dancers interpret his choreography for twenty minutes or so. The choreography itself is the weft, or at least the fixed motif across all five acts. The warp is much more complex; Peake invites musicians, artists and poets to propose their own drastically altered interpretations. The space, too, transforms each time across the astonishing backdrops of Naples and Stromboli.

July 13, 2017

Animals (a reenactment of the 2012 performance Touch) is the first performance, a thirty-minute, five-on-a-side soccer game set in The Morra Foundation’s courtyard. With the exception of cleats and socks, the players are nude and play head to head on a makeshift court. The initial eroticism of the active male musculature is quickly desensitized and transformed into a candid nudity, similar to that found in a locker room. The light just before dusk warmly kisses this unconventional stadium as the audience wildly boos and cheers — a scene that is a nod to an Italian stereotype. The game is a tie, 7-7.

July 14, 2017

Variation 1 of To Corpse unfolds with electronic musician Actress in the courtyard of the Naples museum MADRE. Five dancers squeezed into white bodysuits perform an alien choreography that evokes sex, clandestine desire, violent impulses, hatred, infatuation and love. Actress’s music supplies a cosmic dimension.

The second variation takes place hours later in the picturesque setting of San Giuseppe delle Scalze, an abandoned (yet not deconsecrated) church from the seventeenth century. An ethereal atmosphere is amplified by Gwilym Gold’s mystical music. The performers, dressed entirely in black and sporting white Reeboks, evoke priests born of some profane religion. Their spontaneous Dionysian gestures transcend space.

The third episode is performed during sunset at Solfatara, a shallow volcanic crater where jets of sulfurous steam are lauded for their miraculous healing properties. Poet Holly Pester accompanies the choreography with an absurd tale about an affective disease that torments with distance and solitude. “I’m tired, I’ve lost the revolution,” she repeats in resignation.

July 15, 2017

The rhythm relaxes on the SNAV ferry bound to Stromboli with the 2005 performance Fox, a work created by Peake and Sam Hacking during their time at the Slade School of Fine Arts. A performer dressed in a fox suit is positioned in front of the boat’s bar. A second performer joins in, liberating the first performer from the mask and taking on the role of the fervent fox. The second performer then gives the first performer his clothes via a stuffy swap that takes place inside the costume. Finally dressed, the first performer can now remove the fox mask while dressed in the borrowed clothes. This act is repeated four times in total.

Next, a 2016 performance by Peake and dancer Emma Fisher, titled The Megaphone Duet, is staged on the Scari pier in Stromboli. Dressed in a black bodysuit, Fisher attempts to dance under the guidance of Peake’s stern gaze until Peake takes the microphone and interjects: “I love to watch you perform, move and dance. Do you love me?” In response, Fisher approaches him and hysterically screams, “No fucking way.” She proceeds to slap Peake in the face and then quickly embrace him. A power dynamic is evident, like the relationship between master and student — or perhaps a case of Stockholm Syndrome.

July 16, 2017

Peake’s bodies are pervaded by a reforming frenzy and a violent frailty. The epidermal surface is the site of clash and reconciliation, of internal and external conflict. The experience of each variation is fully shaped by the music and the spirit of the setting.

Variation 4 of To Corpse is held at Club Megà in Stromboli around midnight. Evan Ifekoya and Victoria Sin’s music accompany the five performers, who are now completely nude and covered in shimmering gold powder. The performance is vigorous, alternating between erotic moments and thematic undertones of vice and excess — a stark contrast to the next performance.

The fifth and final variation is set on the shoreline. There is no music this time; the only audible rhythm is the island’s soundscape. Waves lapping at the shore caress the silent choreography. The dancers’ figures are silhouetted by the dawn sky, bringing the performance to a silent, static coda marked by the closing curtain of a oncoming storm.

by Giulia Gregnanin

(Translated from Italian by Bana Bissat)
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Learning from Athens Documenta 14 / Kassel

Is Greece a metaphor? Two months after the opening of Documenta 14 in Athens, the Kassel edition followed with the still-unanswered question of what we learn, have learned, are learning from Athens. It figures a lossy, allegorical Greece: a field in which critical narratives about global dispossession, austerity, migration, historical democracy, historical fascism and cultural production might alternately be thought through and acted out.

In a recent interview in art-agenda, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis noted the exhibition’s simultaneity with the liquidation of Greek national assets (“fourteen regional airports, extremely lucrative ones as Santorini, Mykonos, and so on”) in a sale to the German-state-owned Fraport. One can imagine that the revenue these airports generate, which previously might have been directed to the Greek public services rendered moribund under austerity, now contribute to the wealth of the German state, whose funds, in turn, have brought Documenta to Athens.

What does it mean for a lender to learn from a debtor? In a 2016 issue of C Magazine (in a text unrelated to the exhibition), Candice Hopkins, one of Documenta 14’s team of curators, considers the relationship between learning and power: “‘Pedagogy’ stems from the Greek, paidagōgos, which denotes ‘a slave who accompanied a child to school.’ Perhaps paidagōgos implies learning from the dispossessed (although clearly those doing the teaching had little choice in the matter).”

What one expects an exhibition to do — and what collusions with instruments of repressive power one accepts as normal in the name of discourse — likely depends on what one understands an exhibition’s value to be. Some see an inherent value in exhibitions and their making, while others don’t. Documenta 14’s most visually iconic work, Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books (2017), is a re-creation of a monumental work originally erected in Buenos Aires in 1983: a to-scale replica of the Parthenon, rendered in metal scaffolding and filled with books. The Buenos Aires version used banned books excavated from the storage of the just-deposed Argentinian military junta; the Kassel version uses books banned in other contexts. Facing it to the north is Banu Cennetoğlu’s BEINGSAFEISSCARY (2017), a text installation whose title replaces the name of the Fridericianum on the building’s facade, reproducing its distinctive lettering; the phrase is borrowed from Athens graffiti. Facing the Parthenon of Books to the south is a temporary Polizei station marked with Documenta signage. Though “being safe is scary” reads, in an art context, as a platitude about the threat of hegemonic culture, the presence of Documenta-branded art cops brought to mind unintended resonances between the repressive state, the politics of public safety, and contemporary art’s structural relationship to the verboten (both real and imagined).

My own learning at Documenta began among the works of Lorenza Böttner, whose paintings, drawings and photographs are presented in the Neue Galerie alongside archival materials documenting the armless transgender artist’s life and practice, which seems to have otherwise had few public presentations following her death in 1994. A framed photograph documents one of Lorenza’s public performances of painting: standing on the sidewalk, she uses her feet to paint a canvas in front of a few onlookers, marrying the aesthetic figuration of the painting with the labor of its making, a political act insofar as the fact of Lorenza’s body itself is political. Other works trade in the malleability of gender and its markers: in a few series of black-and-white portraits, Lorenza’s face and hair are subject to transformations in style, fluidly borrowing from the masculine, the feminine, the elaborate and the peculiar. In a drawing on paper, Lorenza’s body is rendered in two vertical halves, split along the gender binary, with each side styled differently. The central piece in the small installation dedicated to Lorenza’s work is a large painting dated 1985, in which Lorenza, seated, cradles a baby in her lap, feeding it with a bottle she holds in the crook of her neck. Alongside Lorenza’s self-imaging of a disabled, gender-nonconforming body as vital, autonomous, expressive and erotic, this central portrait of the artist as a vision of care and social reproduction reads like the freedom to choose what one’s body means.

Installed in one of the exhibition’s glass pavilions on Kurt-Schumacher-Strasse, Vivian Suter’s Nysiros (Vivian’s Bed) (2016–17) stages hanging sheets of painted, unstretched canvas, a surfeit of colorful, ordinary pleasures. A central wooden bed within the installation is made up with sheets of painted canvas, with additional paintings stacked underneath. Vivian’s Bed reminds me of that of Jean Rhys: the British-Caribbean writer who, near to the end of her life, poor and obscure and sick with alcoholism in the British countryside, lived with what would make up the manuscript to her best-known novel, Wild Sargasso Sea (1966), in a pile under her bed. The image of the genius female invalid — and its attendant fluidity between waking, sleeping and working — is one that forgoes the preciousness (and the implicit gendered and classed stratifications) of distancing cultural production from the domestic and that, for all its other sadnesses, seems to bear a measure of private freedom.

The possibility of private freedom also figures in Rosalind Nashashibi’s video Vivian’s Garden (2017), of which Vivian Suter herself is the subject. On view in the Naturkundemuseum, it’s a short, affective portrait of Suter and her ninety-five-year-old mother, Elisabeth Wild, and the house they share in Panajachel, Guatemala. Nashashibi catalogues routine intimacies, adjacent to art practice, in the course of Suter and Wild’s days. Suter scratches paint over canvas, carries a framed panel through the jungle. In a wheelchair, Wild makes collages from paper and magazine clippings. They discuss Suter’s former husband: “You changed your life, you got rid of your husband”; “He was scary”; “He changed several times.” Nashashibi soundtracks the video’s end with a pop song, Sébastien Tellier’s L’amour et la violence (2008), and there’s a pleasure in both how incongruously cheesy it is while nonetheless making the story feel big. At Neue Galerie, a room is dedicated to a selection of Wild’s small, framed paper collages — architectural, graphic, poppy and bright.

These moments were, for me, among Documenta’s best. Other works bear mentioning: Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’s Ecosex Walking Tour, which invited participants to take part in a commitment ceremony to the earth, and to visit the planetary clitoris, conveniently located in Kassel; Pope.L’s Whispering Campaign (2016–17), whose materials are listed as “Nation, people, sentiment, language, time”; Miriam Cahn’s wondrous, violent dreamscape nudes; and Gordon Hookey’s MURRILAND! (2016), a monumental history painting, rich with literary slippages, narrating the violent colonial foundation of the Australian state. It’s difficult to see these works subsumed into a project in which Greece is positioned as a nebulous other, to which anything — and especially any kind of marginalized identity — might be compared. On a bad day I would say that trafficking in inadequate metaphors is not a failure of the art system but rather its most reliable work, of which this year’s Documenta is an ordinary example. From Athens, we might learn that everything is either the same or it is different.

by Tess Edmonson

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