“I feel like everyone wants me to give them some drama about this show,” Touria El Glaoui, Founding Director of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair, said with a laugh, “but it’s actually been one of the easiest set-ups…with New York, there’s this window of opportunity and visibility for the artists and a unique engagement with institutions that you don’t really see in any other city.”
1:54 was founded and organized by Moroccan curator Touria El Glaoui to improve the representation of contemporary African art worldwide. Now, 1:54 is the foremost art fair dedicated to contemporary African art in the primary art market, showing in London during the October Frieze Week since 2013, and 1:54 NY during the May Frieze New York since 2015. Entering its third year in New York, 1:54 NY is showcasing over 60 emerging and established contemporary artists, bringing 19 international galleries together from 10 countries.
1:54 is a ratio that runs parallel to the entirety of the fair’s mission, representing the entirety of Africa: 1 continent, 54 countries. As the title suggests, 1:54 tries to preserve rather than blend together the differences between each country’s histories and cultures. Taking a look at this year’s 1:54 NY, the fair exemplifies its goal in representing individual countries, illustrating local development with global engagement, while connecting to common themes such as female representation, a hugely controversial topic in America as well as worldwide.
The role of gender identity and the fragile state of humanity come up in many of the pieces, always based from the African perspective, which within these topics play a fascinating role. For instance, Lawrence Lemaoana, an artist from South Africa represented by Johannesburg-based Afronova Gallery, creates graphic works that critically engages with the media in present-day South Africa. He views the relationship between media and the people of South Africa as extremely problematic and expresses this view through his trademark cynicism emblazoned on kanga fabric, a traditional fabric with its own complex history. In one of Lemaoana’s kanga canvases at 1:54 NY, the phrase “MY FATHER WAS A GARDEN BOY” reflects upon the time of Apartheid when the easiest job for a man to get was a gardener, and those who worked as gardeners were called “garden boys” by their white employers. Lemaoana brings up a part of South African history on a piece of fabric that lines modern day streets at markets. Kanga fabric is also considered to be a female cloth, so along with telling the story of his father in the past, Lemaoana is toying with gender identity and who the use of this fabric is truly for.
Nigerian-American artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s diasporic view and love for the fusion of opposites creates an upfront look into micro- and macro-relationships. She was born in the United States but currently lives in Nigeria (and is represented by London-based gallery 50 Golborne), allowing her to mold the experience of a life spent between two countries. Her delicate lines build private and public scenes on trace architect paper, the translucency of the background and fragility of the paper’s surface translating to a bigger idea of the delicacy of humanity. Just like in Lemaoana’s work, Ogunji is playing with bigger topics that are experienced worldwide but adds personal elements such as her life as a Nigerian-American woman.
Someone to keep an eye on? Nigerian artist Ndidi Emefiele (featured image). Represented by London-based gallery Rosenfeld Porcini, her work is confrontation and humorous, mixing the contemporary (cut-outs taken from magazines or printed from Instagram) with the traditional (Nigerian dress colors or patterns found in modern settings). The pieces showcased at 1:54 NY hold a message of female empowerment, while the glasses found on most of the girls act as a layer of protection from the world, particularly the “male gaze”. In her 2017 piece Taxi, the exposure of the subject’s skin in comparison to the Matisse-like figures dancing in the background paintings is just one of the contemporary vs. traditional comparisons that can be immediately interpreted. Emefiele confronts popular topics such as gender as a social construct and the portrayal of female bodies within the media while incorporating traditional patterns, foods, and stances from her Nigerian roots.
1:54 NY does an incredible job of not only representing separate African countries but respecting those differences while creating worldwide topics that can be picked up by anyone who comes to visit the fair.
May 5th – May 7th 12-8pm
Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street), Brooklyn
March 11, 2017
“I see life as a passageway,
with no fixed beginning or destination”
– Do Ho Suh
Humanity is often focused upon the destination of life rather than the journeys travelled. These journeys are the ones that result in a life worth living, instead of a life in which the centre of attention revolves around the end result. To be obsessed with the end result of an endeavour, as opposed to living in the present, is the very premise that the artist Do Ho Suh (b.1962, Seoul, Korea) challenges in his new exhibition, ‘Passage/s’.
Currently on display at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, Suh’s body of work questions the boundaries of identity as well as the global connection between individuals and groups. After growing up in South Korea, the artist has moved and lived in many different countries, immersing himself in the culture of each one of them. In his work he aims to create a global connection between his identity, his previous destination, and his current journey. He establishes that his own understanding of ‘home’ is both a physical structure and a lived emotional experience. In this sense, the physical structure of a ‘home’ can only be described as the building or property in which one has lived, whereas the home as an emotional experience is documented in the adventures and memories of life. I
Beginning upstairs on the First Floor, the visitor is immediately transported into the many ‘homes’ of the artist. Each independent aspect of a home, whether it is a simple light bulb or a complicated fuse box, has been carefully replicated by Suh’s meticulous hand. Polyester, which is both a fluid and a translucent medium, is the main choice of material for Do Ho Suh. He uses to replicate everyday objects, and its translucency amplifies the importance of concentrating upon the ‘passageways’ of life: you must be able to travel through each destination in order to continue growing and developing.
This concept is heightened in ‘Passage’s: The Pram Project’, a video installation recorded from the perspective of three different cameras. Taped from the comfort of his daughters pram, the video removes the viewer from the controlled environment of the gallery, and places them into the charming streets of Islington and Seoul. Surrounded by the child’s adoring laughter and babbling, we are reminded of the innocence of humanity and the importance of ‘home’ as an emotional connection, something which provides stability and safety.
Continuing on the Lower Floor, Do Ho Suh displays large threaded drawings replicating doorways and stairwells. Each entrance has been accurately copied from the multiple buildings in which Suh has lived, exaggerating how the outside exterior of a ‘home’ does not necessarily reflect the individual immersed within it. For example, not everyone who lives in a London home is British – the immersion of cultures is the most important aspect to create a global identity.
The exhibition arguably concludes with the most impressive component of Do Ho Suh’s work. His series ‘Hubs’ occupies the entirety of the Upper Gallery, where nine reproductions of the apartments in which Suh has called ‘home’ are on display. The transient polyester spaces are connected by threaded doorways and moving doors, enticing the viewer to walk through and experience each room. Although interactive, ‘Hubs’ removes the practical function of a home: door hinges and handles remain motionless while electrical outputs and pipes are frozen without power. By referring back to Suh’s original premise of the home as a physical entity, as well as an emotional experience, we are placed in this complex structure as both ‘private’ and ‘public’ viewers. In one way the elongated home visualises the ‘private’ life of an individual, while the ‘public’ global identity seeps into the design through the fragile material.
I encourage you not just to see the exhibition first-hand, but to interact and engage with the artwork. The unfortunate irony of this brilliant collection of work is the influence of present day technology, and our infatuation and dependence upon our mobile phones. The majority of people visiting exhibitions today try to capture every moment and work of art into a single photograph. This degrades the original intentions of Do Ho Suh and his exploration of life as a journey, as a photograph destroys the steps travelled in order to take it. Life is about the experiences seized by your eyes, not the artificial screen of a phone or lens of a camera; rather than living through your phone, live through reality.
Do Ho Suh‘s ‘Passage/s’ is on display at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London until 18th March, 2017.
March 5, 2017
It’s the first week of March in New York City, which for art lovers only means on thing: Armory Week! In its third edition, the Art on Paper 2017 fair exhibits paper-based art that frequently pushed the boundaries of what a work on paper could be. The medium-driven focus of the fair sets itself apart from the other larger-scale Armory Week fairs. The 84 galleries hosted at Art on Paper are from all over the United States, with several international additions from Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Kyoto, London, Shanghai, and Copenhagen.
Upon entering the space, visitors are greeted by two site-specific installation pieces. Tahiti Pehrson’s “The Fates” is composed of three colossal, 17-foot towers of hand cut paper, and Timothy Paul Myers, in collaboration with Andrew Barnes, crafted a domestic installation made entirely of felt. These are the first of many works of art that incorporate and utilize paper, but are not necessarily what you would think of when you hear the term ‘art on paper.’
There was a wide scope of artists included familiar modernists like Picasso & Matisse in the Master Fine Arts Gallery, to the all-star lineup of Sol LeWitt, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Alex Katz at Richard Levy Gallery, and a few unheard of standouts. My favorites included Martin Kline’s rhythmic dry brush oil series “Palm Beach” (cover image) at Heather Gaudio Fine Art, whose bright blue compositions imitate patterns that occur in nature. Also in Heather Gaudio Fine Art were a few equally mesmerizing works by Jaq Belcher, whose sculptural, hand-cut leaves in “Lions Gate” cling to a single piece of paper. More of a traditionalist, Ekaterina Smirnova “Blue Path” at Villa del Arte Galleries appears to be an updated, watercolor version of French Impressionism. And Donald Martiny, whose works appear at Spender Gallery, resemble thick, impasto paint strokes but are actually made of pigmented polymer, and are so three-dimensional that he blurs the line between sculpture and painting.
George Billis Gallery’s display of Steven Kinder’s geometric abstractions and the hodgepodge of artists grouped together in Tamarind Institute were the more underwhelming booths. The most bizarre were the black and white photographs by Morton Bartlett that showed kitschy images of dolls posed in occasionally provocative positions. His display in Marion Harris’s booth was visually eye-catching… When you stepped close enough to realize the subject matter.
Amid the abundance of things to see, and the frenzy of visitors and art professionals, there were a few booths that stand out in my memory. Gallery Poulsen was one with the overtly political works of art, including one entitled “What the Fucking Fuck Just Happened” by William Powhida, as well as Artemesia’s installation created from torn pages of used books, and the technicolor portraits at Sasha Wolf Projects.
Art on Paper is open at Pier 36 (299 South Street) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on March 2-5
October 29, 2016
The “Kollektsia!” exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris was born out of a donation of more than 250 artworks from the Vladimir Potanin Foundation, collectors, artists and their families. While not being too exhaustive, this ensemble of works by major Russian artists adequately offers a panorama of some forty years of contemporary art in the USSR and then in Russia, covering the most important movements. It includes works by confrontational artists created outside official structures, from the Moscow conceptual school to Sots Art, from non-conformism to perestroika (a political reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, widely associated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost [openess] policy reform).
The first section of the show is dedicated to non-conformist art since the late 1950s when artists revived the aesthetic practices of the avant-garde and sought innovations of their own formal approach. My favourite pieces are the “Milk Box” sculpture (1970) by Igor Shelkovski, a hanging object called “Space-Movement-Infinity” — the first kinetic work in postwar Russian art and some intriguing photographic works by Francisco Infante-Arana. The non-conformist artworks are not following a homogeneous movement with shared objectives. However, as a whole they represent the budding diversified creativity confronting the strictly controlled official structures in art in the USSR.
My favourite section of the exhibition is of the more playful Sots Art, invented by Komar and Melamid to subvert, in a Pop-art way, the codes of the mass propaganda that saturated Soviet life. In contrast to the Pop artists — confronted by a superabundance of consumer goods — Sots artists, such as Alexander Kosolapov, Boris Orlov and Leonid Sokov, sought to demythologize official cliché and the ideological environment of the Soviet society through absurdity and paradox. For instance, the eye- and phone-camera-catching “Malevich-Marlboro Triptych” (1985) by Alexander Kosolapov demonstrates how the artist drew on broad iconographic sources from both Soviet and Western clichés while using an advertising image. On the other hand, Leonid Sokov’s hanging sculpture “Glasses for Every Soviet Person” (1976) delivers ironic humour through simple graphics and raw wooden texture.
Alongside Sots Art, the 1970s brought about Moscow Romantic Conceptualism which accord greater importance to text and language, with artists working at the intersection of poetry, performance and visual art, such as Dmitri Prigov and Andrei Monstyrsky. The latter advocated a conceptual art that reflected the ascendancy of literature in Russian culture. A section of the exhibition pays homage to Dmitri Prigov who was known for writing verse on cans. The conceptualists also embraced the power of text through performance, such as “I Breathe and I Hear” (1983) by Andrei Monstyrsky, who is a part of the Collective Actions group; the group taht has carried out a lot of planned performances.
The onset of perestroika brought an exploding sense of freedom and accelerating artistic processes from the mid-1980s onwards. Following the sudden liberalization, artists were then able to take part in exhibitions and find a place on the international art arena. This period in Russian history not only witnesses the diversifying artistic approaches, but also paved the way for legitimizing of formerly marginalized art. In 1988, a first auction organised by Sotheby’s in Moscow gave a tangible value to unofficial art, and the boundary between official and unofficial abruptly disappeared. In this sense, the impressive “Last Supper” (1989) by Andrei Filippov, with hammers and sickles on a red table, is one of those works marking the end of “unofficial art” while it preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Perhaps some of Yuri Leridrman’s works in 2009 displayed at the exhibition could reflect this lively flourishing of creative energies in post-Soviet era; the artist juxtaposed painted plants onto collage of newspapers, thereby transforming textual material into images.
I met Touria El Glaoui during the opening of 1:54 art fair this October. Already familiar with Touria’s tremendous success in not only establishing the fair four years ago, but also expanding to New York only two years after the inauguration, I was intrigued to meet her.
Elegant in her long silky dress with a stylish, and warm for English weather, cardigan, Touria made you feel 1:54 was not simply an art fair, but a home. The amiable, pleasant atmosphere of the Somerset House, which you don’t typically find in a large-scale art fair, made me feel like a guest to a home party, rather than a stranger in a museum. There was no sense of pretensiosness.
While we were sipping hot morning coffee and treating ourselves with a warm butter croissant, Touria shared how she built the brand, or better say the platform for contemporary African artists, and what it took to get 1:54 to the level of today.
You earned your MBA in Strategic Management and have an impressive background working both in banking and IT industries. What made you decide to turn to the art one?
I grew up in Morocco in the house of an artist – my father, Hassan El Galoui – and he was the person who gave me my artistic education. For this reason, art – particularly African art – has always been a part of my life. Much later on – in fact, during my career in the IT industry – I was travelling extensively around Africa and the Middle East, and this is when I fully realised how absent African and African diaspora artists were from the international markets in Europe and the US. Having the seen the incredible work being made on the continent, I decided it was time to the bridge the gap and create a platform.
How did you personal background (your farther is a famous artist) influence you throughout your career?
Many of my earliest memories are of my father’s studio with its incredible smell of oil paint. I would spend hours watching him transform his canvases, and the life of an artist became my daily norm. Because of this, my approach to running 1:54 has always been centred on the artist and on maintaining the integrity of the work. I have also organised and co-curated a number of my father’s exhibitions, and have also been working on the catalogue raisonné of his life’s work, and these experiences have certainly shown me much about the realities of being an artist working on the continent verses in Europe and America.
How did the idea for 1:54 come about? What challenges did you face/still facing?
When I established 1:54 back in 2013, the biggest challenge was finding both the interest and the support. This underpinned much of my decision to launch in London. In 2011 I could already see evidence of a growing interest in African and African diaspora art – for example with the Tate launching its two-year African art programme. I will never forget the incredible backing that I received in that first year, yet every year we continue to face the financial challenge of making the fair happen. We are incredible grateful this year to our main sponsor, Floreat, as well as to Christie’s education and the Arts Council England who have both sponsored this year’s FORUM.
Are you planning on expanding the fair to other locations? What’s the importance of having the fair now in both London and NY?
As I said, London was the most obvious ‘home’ for 1:54 for a few reasons, its internationality being one. Once London was up and running, we began to toy with the idea of New York, and began to see that our galleries and collectors were keen to make the move. We first launched as a pop-up edition, in May 2014, but returned again this year to enjoy our second edition. The two fairs are actually quite different due both to the buildings they are housed in as well as the different audiences they attract, and so the importance of having both editions is to widen the diversity and outreach of the fair. It’s very exciting for us when collectors are able to visit both.
Who’s your favourite artist?
This is always such a difficult question! I can never choose and it would be unfair for me to do so. All the artists and galleries that we welcome to each new edition brings something unique to 1:54 and my greatest hope is always that our visitors will explore and appreciate this diversity, and appreciate each artist in their own right.
6. Tell us what is new in this year’s edition of 1:54 art fair.
I am particularly excited about our incredible line up of Special Projects joining us this year. We have 10 in total, and each one is incredibly unique and will add a whole new element to the fair. Zac Ové’s installation, for example, will extend the fair into the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court for the first time ever; Ifeanyi Oganwu’s lounge design – created in collaboration with Phoebe Boswell – and Barthélémy Toguo’s Mobile Cafeteria will introduce vibrant, interactive spaces; and we will also be extending out over the airwaves with a live three-day broadcast by a new music-radio platform, Worldwide FM. Of course the Malick Sidibé exhibition – created in collaboration with Somerset House and MAGNIN-A – is also incredible exciting. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to showcase such an influential African photographer, and to be able to extend the exhibition past the four days of the fair, throughout Somerset House’s winter season.
Who are the artists to watch at 1:54 this year in London?
I want to draw attention to the fact that this year we are delighted to be welcoming 16 Africa-based galleries, of which 6 are from North Africa. Many of these are joining us in London for the first time, including Village Unhu from Harare, Zimbabwe; Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art from Cairo, Egypt; and L’Atelier 21 from Casablanca, Morocco.
What are your future plans for the fair and beyond?
1:54 is constantly evolving, this year we welcome an incredible 40 exhibitors with over 130 artists exhibiting with us this year. Despite this, we want our ethos to stay the same: to create a platform for African and African diaspora artists in the international art market while putting the artist first. In terms of expanding further afield, we first want to ensure that our London and New York editions are as good as they can be.
October 5, 2016
Autumn. The season of cooler weather, multicolored leaves, long strolls in the Heath and marrons glacés, the time when we all start reminiscing about our summer fun and get ready for winter. However, the fall season is not only warmer clothes and hot chocolate, but also the time for major art happenings around the world.
Autumn, and especially October, is the time to follow new fashion trends at fashion weeks in the major cities, and to enjoy weeks of art. The Old World’s art capital – London – started long ago to prepare for the first week of October, aka the busiest and most stressful time in the art world.
The annual arrival of Frieze – the art fair opening in Regent’s Park October 6-8th – and it’s daughter Frieze Masters trigger parallel art happenings, such as the most important contemporary art evening auctions, art festivals, art shows and a myriad of talks and events throughout the capital, in order to benefit from the arrival of the art world’s mighty and try to get a piece of that juicy cake.
Find below a list of TOP artsy things to do this October in London and, believe me, you will want to be one to visit them:
Arguably the most well-known art fair today, though not the most visited one (according to the annual report by ArtVista) Frieze opens for the 13th time this October at Regent’s Park.
Note-by: if you feel unsure about spending 60 pounds on combined ticket to both Frieze&Frieze Masters, make sure to stroll in Regent’s Park – Frieze Sculpture Park is free for all and this year features canonical artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Ed Herring, and Lynn Chadwick just to name a few. The Sculpture Park will be on view for you to visit until January 8th, 2017.
The fair of contemporary African Art, 1:54 will return for the forth time to Somerset House this October. Representing over 50 African countries, 1:54 breaks the traditional approaches to art fairs and delivers a must-see program. The largest edition yet, the fair takes over the whole Somerset House this October and showcases 40 galleries.
Note-by: stop by the open-air installation by Zak Ove at the Somerset House’s courtyard, as well as by the unmissable exhibition of the exceptional Malick Sidibé (Malian photographer) – the exhibition will be on view for you to see up until January 15th, 2017.
Presumably you heard of the name Pollock. Or you heard that one of his paintings titled No 5 (1948) is one of the most expensive paintings in history and was sold for $165.4 million at an auction. Or maybe you didn’t. But the fact is that this exhibition is the first major retrospective of the Abstract Expressionist art movement in the UK in 70 years. Think abstraction, color fields and visual travel. You ought to see it.
Note-by: The most interesting part is the inclusion of not only famous names like Pollock and Rothko in the exhibition, but also of other artists who contributed to the movement.
This must-see exhibition presents just how talented Picasso was. The show will display portraits created during every stage of the artist’s career and will showcase famous masterpieces, as well never seen before works from private collections.
Note-by: the granddaughter of the artist, Diana Widmaier-Picasso, will be in conversation with the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Dr Nicholas Cullinan, on the 6th of October at 7pm, giving her views on Picasso’s portraiture.
Another must-visit show in London focuses on Caravaggio. It is important to note, though, that the primary accent will be given to the influence that the artist had on his contemporaries by showcasing the works of lesser-known artists of the time. So-called Caravaggism will be explored throughout the exhibition and bring together works by Caravaggio and his European followers.
Note-by: The National Gallery created a series of events and talks to introduce visitors to the Caravagesque style and to Caravaggio himself throughout the month of October. If you are a fan of Baroque art, or just a curious soul, make sure to check some of them out.
September 13, 2016
“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise: Contemporary Art from the Middle East and North Africa” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is the third installment of the UBS Map Global Art Initiative, which aims to add contemporary art to the museum’s permanent collection from underrepresented regions of the world. The previous exhibitions featured works from Latin America and Southeast Asia. The initiative’s objective is to create a more diverse, cross-cultural dialogue about the contemporary art being created and exhibited today.
“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise” features seventeen artists whose works span a wide variety of media, including video, painting, photography, works on paper, bronze and copper sculpture, and installation pieces. The curator, Sara Raza (whose Instagram @punkorientalism is fabulous and worth checking out), includes artworks that grapple with immigration, geometry, architecture, and cultural memory.
The first work of art you see once you enter the exhibition is made of the most unusual and surprising material I’ve ever encountered in a museum—couscous! The artist Kader Attia recreated the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the ancient city of Ghardaïa using the Middle Eastern culinary staple. On the two walls behind the sculpture are images of the French architects Le Corbusier and his successor Fernand Pouillon. The two men visited Ghardaïa, Algeria in the 1930s and reworked elements of the local architecture into the aesthetic of European modern architecture, but never acknowledged or credited where they found their inspiration. The piece makes a thought-provoking statement about the colonial past of France and Algeria, and artistic colonization.
Another standout piece is Abbas Akhavan’s ‘Study for a Monument,’ which is a large array of bronze sculptures arranged on the floor not far from couscous sculpture. The bronzes are reproductions of plants native to ‘the cradle of civilization’: modern day Iraq. The decades of war has caused irreparable damage to the environment and ecology of the nation. And the plants Akhavan reproduces are representative of either endangered or extinct species. The title of the work plays with our idea of what a monument is—an object that glorifies or commemorates something forever.
My favorite artist within the exhibition is Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Her stainless steel sculpture ‘Flying Carpets’ hangs from the gallery’s high ceilings. The geometry of the sculpture corresponds to the dimension of blankets used by undocumented immigrant street vendors who sell their goods illegally. Kaabi-Linke encountered many of these vendors during her time in Venice, Italy, and the sculpture mirrors the arch of Venetian bridges. The title alludes to a trope in oriental myth, but is grounded in the realities of the migration crisis. The cage-like sculpture could even stand for the trap these immigrants find themselves in within the black market. These individuals face a constant threat of being arrested or deported for their illegal activity. The geometry of sculpture is breathtaking, and it throws beautifully intricate shadows along the surrounding walls.
One of the things that I appreciated the most about this exhibition is that it doesn’t try to discuss or grapple with every geopolitical, social, religious, or cultural issue that the Middle East and North Africa are dealing with. Instead, it chooses to show how a few contemporary artists can conceptually convey the complexity of the Middle East. Hopefully seeing the exhibition will inspire visitors to reevaluate their impression of the region through the lens of contemporary art.
“But A Storm Is Blowing From Paradise” is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum until October 5th, 2016. In 2017, it will travel to the Pera Museum in Istanbul.
August 12, 2016
Japanese artist Mariko Mori’s Ring: One with Nature (2016) is a three meter wide ring overlooking a 58-meter waterfall in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest, in Véu da Noiva, Mangaratiba. The permanent installation is arranged to allow the shift of colors with the movement of the sun, changing from vibrant blue to a bright gold as it is backlighted by the sunrise. Striking in its minimalism, Mori’s sculpture is multifaceted both in its conception and effect. The artist has since stated that the idea originated as an inspiring, ethereal dream of a ring over a waterfall, which she sought to actualize in physical space. Rooted in a spiritual beginning, the installation took on an even broader range of meaning through its inherently environmental message and relation to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Faou Foundation, Mori’s nonprofit in New York which promotes global environmental awareness, produced the sculpture and gave it as a gift to Brazil’s environmental institute, Instituto Estadual do Ambiente (INEA). The installation further actualizes its environmental message through formal symbolism. The singular ring set above the Véu da Noiva waterfalls functions as a conceptual extension of the five Olympic rings, highlighting the message of unification between countries to nature’s realm. This is a crucial message for the planet in its current state of the ecological crisis. Through her highly symbolic gesture, Mori successfully utilizes the Olympics as a platform of global synchrony with nature.
Symbolism behind the ring’s physical form also functions as a reminder of the cyclic relationship between humanity and nature, tracing back to prehistoric times. The artist’s choice of the circle also correlates to organic, archetypal forms found within natural landscapes, further strengthening the timelessness of the piece through its minimalistic expression. The sixth Olympic ring was unveiled on August 2 with a ritual-like ceremony including music and performance by participants dressed in all white. The white color further amplified the artist’s statement of universal oneness and reinforced thematic connections to ancestry and tradition.
Mariko Mori’s recent sculpture recalls her previous work in terms of its synthesis of ancient traditions and belief systems with modern technology. The result is a truly present object that is not only relevant to modern times but also introduces a sense of deeper archetypal connection in its audience. This element is also present in Transcircle 1.1 (2004), where Mori composes a modernized version of the ancient Stonehenge with a constantly shifting scenery of lights. The structure integrates elements of both prehistoric Japanese and Celtic traditions, introducing a personalized synthesis of cross-cultural mythology that is also present in Ring: One with Nature. Mori uses live data taken from a neutrino physics laboratory in Japan to monitor the play of lights in Transcircle 1.1, achieving a startling, distinguished presence that echoes throughout her body of work.
Through integrating technological advances with an artistically spiritual vision, Mori achieves a rich spectacle in Ring: One with Nature and makes a profound statement about humanity’s potential for unity. Her sculpture is a reminder that mankind is capable of creating structures that are environmentally friendly, culturally unifying and profitable all at once. In context of Mori’s previous works, the sixth Olympic ring becomes a part of the artist’s overarching vision that places vital importance on human presence and agency in our global landscape. Her message is both simple and profound. It deeply resonates at this time, calling for unity between nations as well as between mankind and the earth.
A week ago, I found it nearly impossibly to look away from C-SPAN’s coverage of the Republican National Convention. The rowdy fanfare of the RNC appears more like a circus than a political conference. No matter how one aligns themselves politically, most people can agree that the upcoming election has been prime material for art and entertainment. Throughout history, politics have seeped their way into the art world. Often artists sneak subtle political statements into their work, or will directly address contentious political issues in very explicit ways. In the world of contemporary art, Swedish artist Johan Wahlstrom is continuing this tradition of politically themed artwork with his harrowing and provocative acrylic and ink paintings. Although Wahlstrom started out as a musician, he always painted as a hobby and after touring with a rock band for many years, he moved from Stockholm to a small village in France to pursue painting full time.
Today, Wahlstrom is based in Spain and continues to paint pieces that explore the dark underbelly of modern society and politics. Wahlstrom paints in a neo-expressionist style and cites a diverse range of artists that include Paul Klee, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Jackson Pollack as his influences. His dark inky colors and thick brushwork create portraits of modern life that are simultaneously hazy and abstract and frighteningly realistic. As a former rock musician, Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. Upon viewing his painting “Heil Trump,” I was reminded of a similar politically themed work by the German Dadaist John Heartfield, entitled “Adolf the Super Man: Swallows Gold and Spits Tin,” which is an explicit critique of Adolf Hitler. Wahlstrom’s “Vote for Me,” another portrait of Donald Trump, features the presidential candidate’s head surrounded by terrifying abstract figures, representing his loyal followers. “Punch them Hard,” an acrylic work by Wahlstrom is equally disturbing and shows Trump giving a thumbs up while chaos ensues in the background. This is a visual representation of Trump’s verbal encouragement of his followers to attack protesters. This series of Trump portraits evokes the mob mentality and frenzy of Trump’s rallies. Wahlstrom attacks other issues such as immigration in his “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” series, which poignantly captures the plight of immigrants and refugees.
As a former rock musician, Johan Wahlstrom is not afraid to provoke and rile up his audience. His paintings are dark, confrontational, and frighteningly resonant. His piece “Too Much Trump” in particular is an apt depiction of Trump’s pervasive presence in the media, his angry scowl taunting the viewer. Wahlstrom’s favorite piece from his body of work is “You Can’t Trust” from 2011, which he refuses to sell and hangs in his living room. Wahlstrom was so satisfied with the piece, that he took a 2 month hiatus from painting. This particular painting is his favorite because he associates it with the catharsis and satisfaction he experienced while working on it. The experience was “magical” for Wahlstrom, he felt like he was inside of his own work and not slaving away in a studio.
Despite Wahlstrom’s sinister aesthetic and disturbing subject matter, he paints with a profound passion and love for his craft. His favorite part of the creative process is conceiving the title or theme behind his work, which eventually determines what will end up on the canvas. For Wahlstrom technique is not the most crucial aspect of great art, but rather “the feeling and messages” behind the work in question.
Wahlstrom’s artist’s’ statement reads:
“I paint to keep myself insane.
I paint anxiety to be calm.
I paint war to have peace.
I paint sadness to be happy.
I paint the dark to be in the light.
I paint death to be alive.
I paint a story so that I don’t have to tell a story.”
In the future, Wahlstrom hopes “to be able to do stronger paintings with political statements, social criticism, to be part of making the world a better place for future generations.”
China’s recent history is one full of social and political chaos. Chairman Mao Zedong resided as the country’s communist leader for nearly thirty years, responsible for the founding the People’s Republic of China, sending China into a deep economic crisis, and infamously inciting the riotous Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao had set out to purge the country of what he called “impure elements.” The youth of China backed Mao as they flooded across the country murdering teachers, closing schools, denouncing family members, burning books, and destroying China’s history. Artist were cast out of society and only those who attended nationalized art schools and produced works in a factory-like manner with politically expedient content, were permitted. Today, we see how Chinese artists critique the Cultural Revolution and the Communist Party, shedding light on China’s societal issues, through their creative individuality.
Hung Liu was born shortly after the Chinese Civil War in 1948. She was a prolific student and studied at the best private schools China had to offer. As the Cultural Revolution began, Liu was sent to be “re-educated” in a rural village. Before leaving Beijing, she borrowed a camera from a friend. She used this camera to take photos of villagers, their families, and their day to day struggles. At this point in time, the Cultural Revolution was in full bloom and Chinese culture was being threatened to extinction. Hung Liu’s photographs of those villagers served as a preservation of those individuals and to their culture.
After the Revolution, Liu went on to study fine arts and earned a her graduate degree in Muralist Painting. For three years she painted political propaganda in the Soviet Realist style, all the while secretly painting landscapes with miniature tools and paints she herself had made. Hung Liu desperately wanted artistic freedom and was granted just that when she was given permission to attend the University of California San Diego in 1983.
Liu often paints from photographs of Chinese social outcasts: prostitutes, laborers, and prisoners. The realistic nature and size of her characters reflect her practice in Soviet Realism and Muralism. However, she manipulates the image by running paint down the canvas, which gives the effect of a photograph faded by time. The characters in each piece look as though they are disintegrating right before our eyes; a possible commentary on the lives lost and forgotten during the Cultural Revolution.
Hung Liu recently retired from her position as a professor at Mills College, but she continues to paint and has worldwide exhibitions.
Ma Desheng was a self taught artist, mainly because he was deemed unfit to be trained in fine arts at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Desheng worked as an industrial draftsman and woodblock print artist, using traditional Chinese ink.
Desheng produced a series of images of rock-like figures and portrayals of China’s working class. These images were stark contradictions to the suppressive propaganda that Mao and the Chinese Communist Party were feeding the people.
His early productions were un-romanticized images that displayed the realities of what was happening to China. The dark rigid lines evoke a sense of inner turmoil, similar to that of the artwork of the German artists, Käthe Kollwitz or Edvard Munch.
In 1970, Ma Desheng was influential in the founding of Star Group ( or Xing Xing). This group consisted of self taught, Western-influenced artists who fought for individualism and liberation against the Cultural Revolution. Ma Desheng and the Star Group bravely defied the government when they put on an exhibition of their own work across the street from the National Art Museum in Beijing. It was, of course, shut down by authorities and Ma was arrested for his involvement in organizing such an exhibit.The Star Group went on to lead a rally against the authorities and were successful in opening a second show; some say it was this rally that helped Chinese society become more culturally open.
Not long after Star Group’s second show, Ma Desheng moved to Europe, as did many of the other members. He continues to live and work in Paris, but there is no doubt that his passionate commitment to freedom of expression helped pave the way for future Chinese artists.
One of China’s most well known and successful artists, Zhang Xiaogang, was also a witness to China’s Cultural Revolution. His parents were government officials but were sent away to be “re-educated” at the height of the Revolution—an event that greatly affects his work.
He studied at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts after the Cultural Revolution ended, but his professors were persistent in teaching the style of Soviet Realism. Zhang resisted this style and any philosophy that had to do with collectiveness in society. He founded a group focused on the importance of individualism in philosophy and art called the Southwest Art Group. Though somewhat successful with nearly eighty artists in the group, the Tiananmen Square incident happened not long after and the era of liberal reform ceased completely.
It wasn’t until 1992 when Zhang returned from Germany after 3 months that he knew exactly what he wanted to paint. He stated that he “could see a way to paint the contradictions between the individual and the collective.” His portrayals of those contradictions are what make his paintings so eerily captivating. Most of his work is themed after family photographs but there is always some sort of strange mark or difference in color that makes them unique to one another. The child, who is typically centered, is the most defined. This can be taken as Zhang’s commentary on the youth of the Cultural Revolution and their willingness to disown their families and personal histories.
Zhang Xiaogang’s artwork has shown world wide and he is easily one of the most prominent Chinese contemporary artist of today.
Beijing-based artist, Yue Minjun, also captures that theme of contradiction that Zhang Xiaogang displays. Yue Minjun was born in 1962 and studied oil painting at the Hebei Normal University in 1985. His work is done in a style that has been coined as “Cynical Realism,” and they are iconically uncomfortable. Most of the paintings are self-portraits of the artist with pink skin, laughing maniacally in surreal backgrounds while bent over in an attempt to cover an exposed body, vulnerable in only underwear.
These cartoon like images are politically pointed at the Cultural Revolution and China today. Minjun states that “…laughter is a representation of a state of helplessness, lack of strength and participation, with the absence of our rights that society has imposed on us.” This laughter evokes a strange feeling to the viewer. You feel as if you were looking at someone that had just gone through a mental breakdown and had experienced an intense amount of pain, dehumanized, but has an odd instinct to laugh. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that, this is how Minjun see’s the China today; as society that has been through so much within recent years but does not know how to deal appropriately with the pain.
The now world renowned artist, Xu Bing, was in high school when the Cultural Revolution broke out. Determined to stay in Beijing and continue his studies, he agreed to use his talents in calligraphy to create political propaganda. After he graduated, he was sent to the countryside to work in the fields and was not able to return until the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. Xu was accepted into Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts the following year to study printmaking.
The relationship between words and interpretation seems to be the core theme in Xu Bing’s work. In his grandiose installation, “Book from the Sky,” large scrolls hang from the ceiling and traditionally bound books and newspapers line the floor and walls, all stamped with woodblocks carved with made-up, nonsensical Chinese characters. The fact that nothing is literally being said in this piece results in many different interpretations. Is the installation a focus on Chinese tradition versus modern art? Is it a questioning of how different cultures perceive one another? Is it a commentary on the manipulation of words to achieve power, like in Mao’s case? Or is it a meaningless study of form and repetition? There are grounds for each of these questions within the piece and its intriguing quality is one of the reasons “Book from Sky” is such an international hit within the art world.
Cai Guo-Qiang is probably best known around the world for his firework show at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but Cai’s artistry goes far beyond his pyrotechnic displays. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy from 1981 through 1985, which is evident in the spatial rendering seen in his large installations, paintings and performance pieces.
One of his most famous pieces was an installation he was commissioned to do for the 48th Venice Biennale, entitled, “Venice’s Rent Collection Courtyard.” The installation consisted of 114 clay sculptures of peasants and laborers interspersed within the gallery’s setting.The piece created quite the stir amongst the art world as it closely resembled the famous Social Realist sculpture “Rent Collection Courtyard”: a highly political series of sculptures created during the Cultural Revolution. The stir wasn’t only because of Cai’s replica of the Chinese classic, but because he choose a material that would cause the sculptures to disintegrate as the show went on; a possible statement on Mao’s promises to the Chinese people and the ephemerality of their political and social structures.
Many of Cai Guo-Qiang works seem to embody a theme of unforeseen fate. In many of his paintings, he will scatter gunpowder on an already painted canvas, and ignite it. The result displays a combination of the controlled color of the actual paint, and the sporadic, random markings of the burnt gunpowder. This theme is also evident in his installation “Head On” where sculptures of wolves take off running and soaring through the air. The momentum of the piece is brutally interrupted as the wolves run, “head on,” into a wall a plexi glass and fall gracelessly to the floor.
It is often said that an artist’s role in society is to be instrument of the time; to reflect society back to itself, to be a catalyst of change, and to articulate culture. It is fair to say that these artists, and many other Chinese artists, are doing just that.