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Maia Ruth Lee Jack Hanley Gallery / New York

It doesn’t take a native speaker to know there’s something amiss in Maia Ruth Lee’s new film The Stranger (all works 2018). A voice-over in Korean doesn’t seem to match up with its ostensible English subtitling: while the male speaker might be describing the pastoral scenes of Nepal presented in the film, the on-screen text discusses, among other topics, pregnancy, family, anxiety, and money.

This narratological slippage is the core of The Stranger: Lee wrote her own subtitles over her father’s footage, part of his linguistics fieldwork in the Himalayas shot in the late 1980s. The two voices interweave and never touch, but that asymptote doesn’t just linger as melancholy for Lee. The Stranger and “Access To Tools,” the broader exhibition to which the film belongs at Jack Hanley Gallery, instead went for something else. “Access to Tools” courted grace rather than pathos. The show was a poem written through the dual yet incommensurate voices of a private language and a cultural code.

Lee’s earlier presentations already centered questions of translation and meaning-making, but through a formalist sculptural language of wrought iron “glyphs,” small decorative designs hung on the wall. Such ciphers returned at Hanley in the series “Auspicious Glyphs”: their repetition and syntactical display on the gallery walls further suggested their grammatical organization. Lee also supplied an answer key of sorts, a paper document that explained the therapeutic potential of each symbol: an arched form could “enhance balance,” for example. The Stranger and “Auspicious Glyphs” both hint at the impossible and maybe absurd task of language, its responsibility to both expression (Lee’s personal sculptural vocabulary) and communication (the conveyance of what those sculptures do).

Between the film and the glyphs was “Bondage Baggage,” a group of bundles made of cardboard, luggage, and fabric held together by rope and tape. For Lee, the sculptures quote packages brought back by Nepalese migrant laborers as they return from abroad; the packaging conceals popular consumer goods in order to avoid theft. The exhibition’s broader questions of address are here politicized. “Bondage Baggage” hints at the quotidian, material stakes of irony, that is, technically speaking, the locution of one meaning while intending another. For that is the gift of “Access To Tools” — to cleave irony from tone, and to inventory the ambivalence of any encounter, especially one across borders.   

Joseph Henry

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!Mediengruppe Bitnik Super Dakota / Brussels

Back in 2015, Super Dakota’s exhibition “.GIF” highlighted the creative and artistic potential of the Graphics Interchange Format, a bitmap image format introduced in 1987 by the CompuServe Company. With their latest exhibition featuring Swiss collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik, founded by Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo, the gallery positions itself as one of the few venues in Brussels supporting media and internet-based art.

Titled “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” the show comprises two works: Postal Machine Decision and Anxiety (all works 2018). The former could be described as the remains of a performance, and is an homage to Ben Vautier’s 1965 work The Postman’s Choice: a postcard printed identically on both sides with different addresses, leaving it to the postman to choose where to deliver it. Seven illuminated letters out of the twenty-one that make up the title of the work hang on the wall. All of them were sent in separate packages (also on display) with two different addresses on them: only a third of them arrived at the gallery (on a screen, an animation traces their strange journey as they go back and forth between several locations). In Anxiety, several Intelligent Personal Assistants (including Amazon’s Alexa and Google IPA) face a screen that displays a sound animation. Composed by French musician Low Jack, the soundtrack tries to “engage” with the machines: they light up when they hear their name and somehow seem to express their perplexity (or anxiety), as they are not given a clear set of instructions. Both installations pursue the reflection initiated with Random Darknet Shopper (2014) and Same Same – Cabaret Voltaire Edition (2015): What happens when media artists leave the final cut to randomization and robots? But if Postal Machine Decision and Anxiety aim to test the limits of so-called intelligent technology, they don’t really question the way we rely more and more on it, or the subsequent loss of human control. On the contrary, they demonstrate how machines can perfectly mimic human behavior when faced with an absurd situation: they do something absurd.

Pierre-Yves Desaive

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Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy The Met Breuer / New York

Conspiracy has always existed, but it inundated the mainstream in the US only after the Second World War. Its rise was triggered by two new manifestations of power: postwar political structures turned into humongous, anonymous, and pervasive organizations whose real identity and purpose were impossible to fathom; and an unfortunate series of events, initiated by the assassination of JFK in 1963.

As a result, the trust Americans had in their government slowly degraded. “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” is the first major exhibition to showcase and document the distrust, suspicion, or disgust that artists have manifested toward their contemporary psycho-political contexts. It unveils the underbelly of postwar history, positing supernatural, capitalistic, religious, occult, racial, political, and irrational motives behind historic injustices and dramas. The exhibition doesn’t celebrate conspiracy as an art form, but instead unravels its ecology — its sprawling webs, its fetishized ghosts, and its fascination for haunted architecture — by looking at both sides of the lens: the fantasy and the facts. One side presents different artists’ visceral and subjective responses to the failures of power they’ve witnessed: phantasmagoric (Jim Shaw), symbolic (Cady Noland), abstract (Sue Williams), psychoanalytic (Mike Kelley), traumatic (Sarah Anne Johnson), psychotic (Richard Shaver), ironic (Raymond Pettibon), and frightening (John Miller), among other characteristics. The other side gathers various artists’ more objective responses: analytical (Mark Lombardi), rhetorical (Jenny Holzer), documentary (Hans Haacke), narrative (Alfredo Jaar), revolutionary (Videofreex), and denunciatory (Silence = Death Project). These artworks remind us that mass conspiracy, now thoroughly entangled within modern media, can both undermine and consolidate power, political or otherwise. Without secrets, there is no conspiracy. Without light, there is no shadow, no suspicious dark realm to investigate. Power figures have irreversibly become fertile realms for the most esoteric interpretations. We always look for the truth, or some version of it, even when it’s life-threatening. For some, danger is even the signal of truth. Conspiracy is an asymptote; it bends toward truth without ever reaching it. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) a reporter says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” What if, when printing history, we tend to abandon the boring facts in favor of the fascinating but fabricated stories? Welcome to the age of viral and paranoid entertainment.

Alexandre Stipanovich

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Helen Cammock Void Gallery / Derry

The work of Helen Cammock (b. 1970, London) revolves around a specific undertaking: “encouraging the return of the repressed,” to quote Miguel Mellino, referencing Paul Gilroy’s theories on diaspora in The Black Atlantic. The citation is especially relevant to how music is employed by Cammock — as a vehicle to convey a reality that is more problematic than it appears, in addition to acting as a tool to shed light upon the cracks found within the official version of history.

Cammock’s solo exhibition at Void, titled “The Long Note,” is dedicated to the pivotal role of women during the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. The exhibition marks the fiftieth anniversary of what is commonly considered to be the key protest of the movement, which triggered three decades of conflict throughout Northern Ireland, otherwise known as The Troubles. The exhibition title comes from a film commissioned by Void director Mary Cremin, which consists of archival videos taken from television footage and amateur sources, edited together with interviews and footage filmed by the artist, and interspersed with musical interludes and videos such as a performance of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” by Nina Simone at Montreux in 1976. What emerges from the film are parallels between the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and other struggles — for example the similarity between the incident in Derry and the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965 — or comparisons with other events unfolding in Irish society over time, such as the Contraceptive Train on May 22, 1971, and the difficulty for women to be fully engaged in contemporary feminist theory while facing basic issues of civil rights.

The march as a form of continuous contestation is the theme of the second film on view, Shouting in Whispers (2017), in which Cammock layers videos found on the internet of various protests, from 1968 until today, together with her own documentation. This frontal and nonlinear approach is also found in a series of prints with the same title as the film, in which portions of text are placed upon backgrounds of solid color, almost like warnings that remain imprinted upon the minds of their readers. Indeed, the necessity to read is made evident by the decision to create a reading room dedicated to the history of Northern Ireland and the role of women. However, it is the voice of narrator and Irish civil rights spokesperson Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, as well as the physicality of Nina Simone’s singing, that continue to echo and transport the viewer to a place of collective lament — which was, by no coincidence, the subject of Cammock’s research during her recent residency in Italy as the winner of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women.

by Manuela Pacella

(Translated from Italian by Caroline Liou)

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Aslı Çavuşoğlu New Museum / New York

Aslı Çavuşoğlu’s first US solo museum exhibition culminates in an immense blue fresco that subsumes the New Museum’s lobby gallery. Its title, The Place of Stone, is the English translation of Sar-i Sang, the settlement where lapis lazuli is abundantly mined in Afghanistan — a gem trade that has, in recent years, been exposed as a central source of the Taliban’s funding. An atlas of syncretic images painted in blue pigments, Çavuşoğlu’s fresco entangles histories of lapis lazuli with the fraught endurance of the color blue’s cultural value.

Few, if any, contemporary artists work in the medium of fresco. Prevalent globally from antiquity through the renaissance, frescos were produced by painting colored pigments into wet plaster walls, physically sealing the materiality of color into its architectural support. Çavuşoğlu’s revival of this antiquated technique in relation to lapis is doubly significant. Not only was the treasured stone used in frescos as the blue pigment par excellence of sacred depiction, but the fresco’s permanent fixing of color also serves as a material metaphor for the persistence of blue as a cross-cultural imaginary — of the earthly and cosmic, the divine and infinite, as well as the democratic, diplomatic, and less excitingly, the corporate.

The Place of Stone is most effective in its conjoining of monumental scale with micro-historical moments in the story of a color. Its vast size is an analogy of the sweeping histories it works to recover. An array of symbols related to lapis and blue populate the fresco’s spatial and temporal expanse: a snow-capped Afghan mountain borders Egyptian scarab beetles, and ultramarine decorative ornaments evoke circulations between Islamic, Asian, and European arts. At the fresco’s left end, gridded blue fields conjure the color’s idealization in modernism from Mondrian to Yves Klein to Derek Jarman. On the right, defaced religious icons perhaps gesture to the abject destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, who continue to profit from the stone’s mining and exchange. Yet the present corruptions are mere instances in a broader history, and as Çavuşoğlu’s fresco visually narrates, there is not one place of stone, but many. Blue does not remain subjected to the aesthetic and political regimes it styled throughout history. Like the people and times whose imagination it captured, it remains open to continual transformation.

by Carlos Kong

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Jason Moran / ICA Boston

Jazz musician and interdisciplinary artist Jason Moran foregrounds collaboration as integral to both music and visual artmaking in his first museum show at the ICA in Boston.

The exhibition’s sculptural assemblages, process-oriented drawings, and co-produced experimental films also propose compelling means for displaying the performing arts within institutions beyond mere audiovisual documentation. It is also a timely constituent of the performing arts gaining notoriety within Boston’s art institutions — including the Tony Conrad retrospective split between the MIT List Visual Arts Center and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard, and choreographer William Forsythe’s exhibition, also on view at the ICA.

The main gallery is filled with Moran’s “sets,” based on storied music venues of varying architectural and historical significance in jazz’s history that have since been razed. Recreated at full-scale within the museum, they house both traditional and self-playing instruments (a player piano, a jukebox), which are also at times activated by live performers. Historicizing jazz’s ephemeral sounds and spaces, the works speak to challenges facing its cultural preservation in the face of continual gentrification, marginalization, iteration, and appropriation. The longue durée of exploited black culture in jazz is alluded to in the use of wax-print fabric, characteristic of pan-African fashion textiles by way of Dutch colonialism, which frames a re-creation of the demolished jazz venue Savoy Ballroom.

The artist’s piano drawings, RUN 6 and Strutter’s Ball (both 2016), for which Moran taped paper over his piano keys and played with charcoal-coated fingers, likewise preserve a sense of ephemerality. The drawings record his musical process rather than a finished product, and suggest a potent absence, in much the same way jazz’s historic influence is here omnipotent yet continually erased. The drawings also reveal the influence of conceptualism on Moran’s own practice, as do his collaborations with artists such as Joan Jonas, Adrian Piper, Theaster Gates, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Adam Pendleton.

A standout is Moran’s collaboration with Glenn Ligon, The Death of Tom (2008), in which Ligon attempted to re-create a scene from a 1903 film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wherein white actors performed the characters in blackface. It turned out that Ligon’s film camera had not been properly loaded, and the image he produced was inadvertently ghostly and abstract. It was a welcome accident. Ligon later saw that such racist imagery is refuted through abstraction, not reiteration. Moran provided the film’s moving score, a riff on “Nobody” (1905), which was the signature theme of Bert Williams, a famed vaudeville blackface performer who was himself black. The collaboration succinctly summarizes Moran’s elegant handling of issues regarding preservation and erasure, and, moreover, his noble refusal of the primacy of an artist’s autonomy, often compromised by the effacing of influences through uncredited appropriation rather than collaboration.

by Emily Watlington

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