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Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement 2018 Centre d’Art Contemporain / Geneva

A few days before the opening of the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement in Geneva in November 2018, I came across Allan deSouza’s newly published book How Art Can Be Thought. At the exhibition, the dissonant sounds of scratchy broadcasts and old-school hip-hop tracks (“Vocab” by the Fugees comes to mind) provide the soundtrack to a succession of news composites, advertising spots for iconic products, and famous faces of black America; this is the two-channel video installation BLKNWS (all works 2018 unless otherwise noted) by Kahlil Joseph. Located next to the welcome desk of the biennale, the video provides a generative point of reference: not only for the viewer, but also for the image and its precarious viability.

“The Sound of Screens Imploding,” the title of the biennial, reflects upon the transience of the image in movement and as well as the transience of its medium, the screen. The latter is called into question here: When the image implodes on the screen/space of production/existence, where does it go exactly? It expands, contradictorily, beyond the space of the screen into the space of the exhibition, “lingering on in a fascinating kaleidoscope where vision can be shaped by sound as much as by the image itself, or even more so” (according to the statement written by the curators).

The image is, in fact, constructed on a screen that has never belonged to it; any fixed attachment to the screen itself would negate its reproducibility, its nomadic essence. The nomenclature of art today is similarly no longer sufficient to categorize or contain meanings. In this respect, deSouza’s text is particularly illuminating in its reconsideration of an entire glossary — modeled after Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) — an approach that reformulates the intrinsic definitions of art, activating a sort of pedagogical decolonization of art histories. Browsing through the glossary, I pause at “Medium (#Message)” and “Moved (#Emotion; #Gut Feeling). In the first instance, deSouza is elaborating on Marshall McLuhan’s slogan “the medium is the message,” arguing that “meaning is embedded within and conveyed through the materiality and technology of a medium. Art itself … extend[s] from an individual work’s materiality to become the broader medium through which the work functions.” In the second instance, deSouza affirms that “emotion can be thought of in terms of bodily mobility,” and posits that those who look at art are “moved out of their present intellectual and/or emotional stability in which they might feel safety located, to a state that is more unstable and even threatening. In this case, being moved is to be cast into a state of precariousness, which, like the sublime, is inherently destabilizing and potentially threatening.” The glossary deliberately leaves out terms like “image” or “movement,” though they are implicated and incorporated in other ways. “Medium” and “Moved” are complementary to a certain way of understanding and empathizing with images, and function as attempts to shift attention onto the viewer anew, as the biennial also does.

Conceived as a wide-open space for the overproduction of moving images — composed of immersive micro-environments, as if they were vessels communicating with one another — the biennial also produces a soundscape that becomes an image of the image itself in almost every corner.

Andreas Angelidakis’s Demos Bar, an array of modular parallelepipeds in gold faux leather echoing minimalist kitsch, guides us toward the soundtrack Orcorara (tres estrellas todas yguales) by Elysia Crampton. In the piece, music and stories taken from the texts of eighteenth-century writer Joan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua are played over speakers, layered with neon lights that alternate between colors and a play of shadows, projected in a loop of approximately seventy minutes. The abuse of digital post-production and amateur videos is interrupted by a staged celebration with Moroccan customs and traditions in Party on the CAPS by Meriem Bennani. Bennani takes an ironic, lucid approach to immigration in the United States: she imagines an island, CAPS, as an incubator of undocumented migrants intercepted by the US. Also touching upon the impermeability of walls is the exemplary Walled Unwalled by Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Compelling in its visual representation of sound, it speaks to the experience of an increasingly claustrophobic and monitored existence. The film Parsi by Eduardo Williams repeats Mariano Blatt’s poem “No es” while capturing the everyday life of a group of queer black boys with a camera in constant motion. “What seems to be but isn’t,” recites Blatt — a conundrum that also hovers in the video No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5 by Korakrit Arunanondchai and Alex Gvojic (with Boychild). In the installation, the room is refracted by a green laser harp and is permeated by a nauseating odor produced by a layered mound of clay, latex paint, and seashells; meanwhile, the screens transmit the irrepresentability of the boundaries of human existence.

Feelings of melancholy and primordial instinct pervade Tissues I, a choral performance by Pan Daijing at the Sicli Pavillon. A stage is constructed but its borders are not marked, and so the performance spills over, inviting us to follow it, where it finishes in nothingness — or perhaps it has yet to continue. In contrast is Water Will (in Melody)/Preview by Ligia Lewis, a schizophrenic melodrama in a black-box theater, in which paranoia, instability, and the current obsession with streetwear reverberate (one of the performers, Dani Brown, seems attired to walk down an Eckhaus Latta runway). Reflecting upon the “body-machine,” Womb Life is a navigation of dreams and premonitions by Tamara Henderson, who has recently been preparing for the birth of both the installation and her son. The mechanical sculptures that compose Womb Life recall Jean Tinguely’s Méta-mécaniques (1953–55) and, reclaiming the surrealist object, recall the Lacanian vision of the body as “a sentence which invites interruption.” James K. Kienitz Wilkins begins his stream-of-consciousness narration to the film This Action Lies with the words “I’m making an apology.” As the film’s only image is a polystyrene coffee cup, the voice becomes the image.

The biennial’s voices overlap with its sounds. In No history in a room filled with people with funny names 5, Boychild whispers: “Such a place the space without a screen.”

Eleonora Milani

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Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams Serpentine Galleries / London

The incursion of fashion designers into other creative realms frequently invokes dismissiveness or derision, especially when the designer is young. This bias is founded on the assumption that style is inimical to substance, and that accordingly fashion is a far more superficial discipline than others. However, it is difficult to imagine such a judgment being made of “A Time for New Dreams,” an exhibition curated by Grace Wales Bonner, who is a fashion designer in her mid-twenties.

The show takes its title from a 2011 collection of essays by Ben Okri, many of whose poems are written on the walls of the gallery. In the show, Wales Bonner brings together work by African diaspora artists, including Chino Amobi, Black Audio Film Collective, Liz Johnson Artur, David Hammons, Rotimi Fani Kayode, Kapwani Kiwanga, Eric N. Mack, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Sahel Sounds, Laraaji, and Rashid Johnson.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2150782), 2018
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2150782), 2018. Copyright Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Courtesy of the artist.

These works are ostensibly unified by themes of mysticism, ritual, and magic in black cultural and aesthetic practices. In the introduction to the exhibition guide, Serpentine curators Claude Adjil and Joseph Constable write that in exploring such elements Wales Bonner “envisions a space where new dreams and potentially new worlds can emerge.” Certainly I found that this very powerful show is pervaded by a sense of potentiality; yet this potentiality’s presence is intimated by absence.

In some works, this dynamic is almost explicitly thematized. One instance is Eric N. Mack’s installation A Lesson in Perspective (2017), which consists of a wool net curtain, a tent cover, and sheets of linen, silk, polyester, and velour hanging from the ceiling. The hole in the tent cover entices viewers to see what lies on the installation’s other side, and yet when one ventures round, one finds oneself looking through the same hole — once again tempted to see what lies behind it. Or Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s archival pigment prints, A Ground (_IMG6936) (2015) and Darkroom Mirror Study (0X5A1519) (2017), both of which depict rooms (seemingly artists’ studios) almost totally hidden by sheets. Or the photographs by the late Fani-Kayode, especially Maternal Milk (c. 1986), in which muscular black bodies are partially obscured by shadows.

Laraaji, Transformation, 2019
Laraaji, Transformation, 2019, Grace Wales Bonner: A Time for New Dreams, 18 January – 16 February 2019, Serpentine Galleries, © 2019 readsreads.info

However, the sense of restrained possibility is also evident in works whose artists perhaps did not set out to give such an impression. David Hammons’s The Holy Bible: Old Testament (2002) was produced as an artist’s book in an edition of 165, and consists of a 1997 softcover edition of The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, by Arturo Schwartz, here rebound to resemble a Bible with a slipcase. In “A Time for New Dreams,” though, we are not provided with the context of the piece’s conceptual jollity, and the edition on view is in a glass cabinet, inside its slipcase.

Even the most plenitudinous and luxurious works in the show gesture to more than they present: During the exhibition’s opening days, the musician Laraaji led a series of meditation workshops; a large amount of paraphernalia and ephemera from the event now lies on a huge rug surrounding a conspicuously empty area where Laraaji sat. And when visitors walk into the Sackler Gallery they are immediately faced with two works by Rashid Johnson, Untitled (daybed 1) (2012) and Untitled (daybed 6) (2012) — daybeds that have been clad in zebra skin to resemble couches, placed on patterned rugs. These works originate from a 2012 exhibition at South London Gallery, in which Johnson imagined a society in which psychotherapy is a freely available drop-in service. However, this context is once again lacking, and consequently these vacant couches seem like errant parts of missing wholes.

Daniel Neofetou

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Caitlin Keogh The Approach / London

Fitting with the artist’s background in technical fashion drawing, Caitlin Keogh’s paintings are done in a delicious palette of mauve, mustard, and avocado hues to a stylishly flat affect. The Alaska-born painter’s work to date has been noted for its abundance of fragmented female body parts, all presented in an aseptic Pop-ish style.

The press release to Keogh’s solo show at the Approach in London, which featured six large paintings all from 2018, remarks on her return to the anatomical. Decoratively rendered avian skeletons and a diagrammatic intestinal tract were among the literal manifestations of this theme. But more pervasively, what was swallowed and spat out again in this body of work seems to be the very devices of painting.

Keogh is an analytical painter whose formal sensibility at once evokes Patrick Caulfield’s deep investment in line and color and M. C. Escher’s mathematically precise spatial constructions. In Keogh’s pictures, the illusion of depth is never stable: it vanishes just as quickly as it appears, drawing viewers into a facetious game of visual whack-a-mole. Such is the effect in the painting Alphabet and Daggers. The “ground” of this painting is tiled with rhombuses that are tonally varied to mimic protruding cubes, while on top are alphabet letters limned in a punchy purple and flatly colored in to elude all spatial cues. Seemingly hovering above it all are a half dozen daggers, but, on closer look, they cast shadows that have no clear relation to the layers below, traitorously betraying any pretense to a coherent pictorial space.

Diverse art-historical references inform Keogh’s practice, and this body of work finds inspiration in the illustrations in the margins of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. Playing a Song features a cartoonish monkey, a common marginalia motif, surrounded by ornamental florals and punctuation signs based on a typography designed by William Morris. Pictures such as this elaborate on Keogh’s already evident postmodernist ethos. But while her canvases bring together disparate visual and textual material, these pictorial constituents notably appear disconnected. The result is a Photoshop feel, wherein ostensibly whole images turn out to be merely stacks of discrete layers. Constantly threatening to separate, Keogh’s new works seem expressive of the unanchored swirl of visual matter that make up our experience of the world today, and, moreover, the inability to conceive of painting outside of it. 

Amy Luo

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Aria Dean Chateau Shatto / Los Angeles

Perhaps it is because you are on the tenth floor — high above the bustle, hot dog vendors, flashing toddler shoes, and spandex-clad mannequins of L.A.’s fashion district — that Aria Dean’s exhibition “lonesome crowded west” feels quietly vacant. Or perhaps it is because the space itself is filled minimally with rather minimal works: there are five identical monochrome circular wall pieces, two identical videos playing on modestly sized monitors, and one swath of white silk draped over an armature to form a cartoonish ghost shape.

The clear focal point of the scant exhibition are the videos playing at either end of the gallery, But as One Doesn’t Know Where My Centre Is, One Will with Difficulty Ascertain the Truth… Though this Task Has Made Me Ill, It Will also Make Me Healthy Again (Crowd Index) (2018). Both monitors are arranged directly in front of a large widow, framed by sweeping views of L.A.’s low-slung downtown. One-second-long soundless clips sourced from hip-hop videos (circa NWA) stream across the screens — shots of lowriders, jumping crowds, and party scenes.

The repetition of the video is echoed in the suite of wall works, Forward Proxy 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so on (2018). Each is swaddled with Mississippi River clay and drenched in a healthy pour of resin, the culminating color a deep glossy cinnamon. The panels become color studies, yet Dean implements this clay calculatingly, eliciting Mississippi broadly here as a touchstone for racial injustice. Still, the repetition of the circular mud panels around the gallery does little but fill wall space (they are not particularly captivating to look at) and perhaps very loosely reference Minimalism. Dean’s brand of conceptualism offers anemic bread crumbs; without much to grasp onto, the viewer begins to infer.

The use of repetition and seriality are borrowed from Minimalism, as is perhaps the strategy of making the viewer’s own fog of associations and preconceptions a feature of the work: Mississippi and California, West Coast Minimalism and West Coast rap, blackness at large and a very specific skin-tone brown. But Dean doesn’t help connect the dots; the objects offer the viewer too little and expect too much.

Lindsay Preston Zappas

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Urban Zellweger Kunstverein Nürnberg / Nuremberg

It is true: the grass is always greener on the other side. But the question remains: Just what is it, that other side? Where do our odd weeds end and the great grass begin? It’s a universal question that might or might not have driven Zurich’s latest painting talent, Urban Zellweger, in his first institutional solo show, curated by Milan Ther at Kunstverein Nürnberg.

We might believe that it drove the iconic alien figure in Out of this World (2018) to cheerfully ski jump over an alpine landscape of slushy snow (the painterly challenge) incorporating iconic icons (no tautology) such as the VLC media player’s bright orange traffic cone or the MacOS finder’s white-blue schizophrenic profile — fatally scattered like the remains of Ötzi the Iceman, testifying to a nearly prehistoric digital age, men’s clumsy computing plus tech culture’s poor allegories sinking into a future species’ sportive oblivion like fading glaciers. Supernatural, too, is the invasion of organic shapes of actual green grass glue (an instrument in landscape model-making) into the rectangular grid of a painted game board of the fairly analog type (Moves, 2018), rearranging the pawns of the game according to an unknown agenda — unknowable perhaps, as the magic realism in those tender paintings seems to suggest. And yet it’s those interventions from the other side, a quintessentially antagonistic perspective, Darwinist even (as an adjacent pair of horse paintings seems to signify), that are structurally shifting the rules of the game (and turf), as both Ther and Zellweger know. Have a seat on the pretty museum bench and join this journey from game space to abstract space to outer space and back again: one may in this way summarize the invitation, or force field, of this witty selection of fresh painting in the neat gallery space of Kunstverein Nürnberg: a place to keep an eye on, an artist to watch out for, for sure.

Julia Moritz

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Terence Koh Office Baroque / Brussels

For his exhibition “Drummen” at Office Baroque, Terence Koh covered the floor of the gallery in soil, and placed eighty-eight graphite powder and charcoal drawings encased in glass around the perimeter of the space.

The first sunlit room displays a central rudimentary fire pit, which had been burning since opening night. By the windows, newly planted shoots sprout from the ground, and nearby are bowls of seeds brought by the artist from California for the viewer to plant in the soil. Upon entering the second darkened room, the viewer is given a candle to gaze upon the drawings in flickering light. Standing in the middle of this artificial cave is the titular drum, with a robotic arm beating at 220 beats per minute, a frequency known for its ability to agitate our cells, organs, and fluids, and used for trance induction from times immemorial.

The drawings bring to mind the mysterious Nazca lines of Peru or the hillside chalk carvings found in England, gigantic etchings that instigated grandiose theories of alien contact with early civilizations. They appear damaged, partly burned in the fire pit. This gesture points toward a belief that is central to many forms of spirituality: hailing the gods by offering the smoke of material objects, their essence, to feed upon, thus placing the drawings in a dual state, as the ritual destruction increases their narrative value. As art objects, the sacrifice is not a loss but an addition.

Terence Koh ‘Drummen’ installation view at Office Baroque
Terence Koh ‘Drummen’ installation view at Office Baroque. Courtesy of the artist and Office Baroque, Brussels.

The exhibition asks us to go back and forth between our bodily experience of the artworks and an imaginary cosmic viewpoint, looking inside oneself as well as looking down from the sky, beseeching the attention of celestial voyeurs. It feels as though the artist tries to create a rupture in time by making it fold in on itself. A feeling pervades that time/history has shrunk, has becoming tangible, and that the germinal marks of the first humans are now at our fingertips. “Drummen” could be seen as an incantation to reach a transhistorical kinship, a kind of Phillip K. Dick-ian lamination of historical layers under the music of a robotic drum, pulsating at the rate of an eternal heartbeat.

There is a marvelous poetry in the image of the artist as suggested by this exhibition — at home in the American wilderness, communing with extraterrestrial life forms, undertaking a rich and introspective quest to define a new form of spirituality at the crossroads between technology and shamanism. Here, spirituality is conveyed through simulacra rather than documentation. Koh’s work cleverly questions the possibility of sharing rituals without fetishizing the artifacts associated with them over their inner meanings; the smoke rises not to the sky but to the ceiling. The ritual is for us dislocated, dissected for display. The soil, seeds, and shamanic beliefs are taken from their historical and geographical context and brought to an urban environment, here dressed in a kind of nature-drag. Is there an afterlife for the seeds the visitor has planted in the soil or do they become themselves a sacrifice to the onward march of time and gallery programming?

Nils Alix-Tabeling

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