The pathetic mass of pulpy paper that is Huang Yong Ping’s The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (1987) is a simple and brilliant rebuttal to anyone’s dreams of cultural purity. Huang arrived in Paris in 1989 to show this work in Hubert Martin’s groundbreaking "Magiciens de la Terre," one of the first large-scale exhibitions with a truly global perspective. Soon after, the shootings at Tiananmen Square signaled that China’s temporary liberalization had ended, and Huang decided to remain in Paris. Ten years later, he represented France in the Venice Biennale.
In China, Huang was a member of "Xiamen Dada," a group of conceptual artists whose actions included having a show and afterwards burning the work they had showed, and gathering up debris from the gallery courtyard and displaying it in the gallery. Since moving to the West, he has forsaken such ephemeral explorations of the Western avant-garde for large-scale installations that refer to global relations and his Asian roots, often incorporating such objects as Chinese divination wheels and medicinal herbs.
Bat Project IV (2004-05), Huang’s most notorious piece, is a copy of a portion of the U.S. spy plane that collided with a Chinese fighter jet in 2001 and was returned to the U.S. in a Russian cargo jet. After being censored and dismantled three times, in Shenxhen, Guangzhou and Paris, the installation was finally realized during Huang’s 2006 retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and Mass MOCA in North Adams -- an instance of artistic delayed gratification that could only occur after time had defused the incident’s tension.
Other notable works include Theater of the World (1993), a turtle-shaped mesh enclosure filled with spiders, crickets, cockroaches and snakes violently struggling to survive, and The Nightmare of George V (2002), a sculpture of a life-sized stuffed elephant carrying a box labeled with the insignia of the British Royal Family. Adding a little drama, a taxidermy tiger is attacking the elephant’s enormous head, making Huang’s bizarre natural history diorama a metaphor for colonial exploitation.
More enchanting than controversial, Huang’s most recent spectacles include Colosseum (2007), a marvelous room-sized terra-cotta model of the famous Roman arena filled with plants, turning the ultimate symbol of early imperialist sadism into an enormous glorified flower pot. His current show at Gladstone Gallery, May 1-July 31, 2009, consists of a single piece called Tower Snake (2009). A spiraling latticework pavilion of bamboo, with a roof made out of an aluminum skeleton of an enormous snake, it engulfs the viewer in an imaginary Asian behemoth that is now a harmless fossil.
Spiraling nearly to the ceiling, Huang’s tower resembles a precarious adult jungle gym. A sign at the entrance warns visitors that they may climb at their own risk, three at a time, and forbids stiletto heels. Viewers can scale a creaky path of bamboo slats that winds its way up through the structure, a journey into the body of a phantom snake that culminates in a view through a fearsome set of reptile teeth. This creepy science-fiction pavilion would be captivatingly mysterious if discovered by chance in the midst of a living bamboo forest. Even in a gallery, it’s great.
Patty Chang, "Product Love"
In the mid-1990s, Patty Chang was notorious for sensationally self-revealing endurance performances and videos, such as Gong Li with the Wind (1995), a marathon of bean eating and defecation, and Alter Ergo (1997), for which she stood for hours with her mouth stuffed with candies as drool dripped down her shirt. In Shangri-La (2005), a more recent video exploration of the Chinese town that renamed itself after the setting of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, the kitschy realities of Chinese tourism were played off against Hilton’s fantasy utopia of longevity.
"The Product Love,"Chang’s first exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, May 21-June 27, 2009, continues this inquiry into cultural confusion. For the subject of Chang’s two video installations is a little-known meeting between the Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong (1906-1961) and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who wrote an essay about Wong for a German magazine in 1928.
The two projections that comprise The Product Love-Die Ware Liebe (2009) are running in turn on opposite walls. Part one features three actors haltingly attempting to translate Benjamin’s essay into English, with the original German text appearing in yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The difficulty of moving between cultures and languages is emphasized by the soundtrack’s low volume. Try as I might to follow either the German text or the English translation, the only phrase I could decipher was "Her tears are famous among her colleagues."
In the second section, Chang re-imagines the meeting as a present day soft porn film set in a traditional Chinese interior, starring a Chinese man (wearing a fake moustache and wig resembling Benjamin’s hair) and a Chinese woman in an old-fashioned yellow Chinese dress. When the action stops, the directors discuss the film’s look and tell the actors how to move. During shooting, the actress lies passively as the male star covers her body with kisses. Cameras and lights are visible, making the episode’s artificiality explicit and stripping away any trace of the exoticism that presumably fascinated Benjamin. It’s an intimate encounter between east and west in which the west does not exist.
The aura of nostalgia and loss often conjured up by Benjamin’s writing (emphatically missing from "The Product Love") can be found in Laotze Missing (2009), a related three-minute film loop playing on a noisy reel-to-reel projector in an adjacent gallery. Transferred from a film archive of the 1928 movie Song (or Show Life), Wong stands against a wall as a rough Caucasian knife-thrower outlines her body in chalk. Shoving her aside, he tosses his knives into the chalk line; while she cowers against the wall, looking by turn indignant, scared or seductive. The empty space formerly occupied by her body, subject of a Western attack, echoes the absence of Benjamin’s essay and the frustrations of a film career hampered by racial prejudice. The large installation is $30,000 and the small one is $15,000.
Laurel Nakadate, "Fever Dreams"
Laurel Nakadate, an artist of more recent notoriety, was accepted into Yale’s prestigious photography MFA program on the strength of her documentary photographs of female undergraduates getting trashed at Wellesley parties. Often the object of pick-up attempts by geeky older New Haven men, Nakadate moved into an SRO and began videotaping bizarre interactions with those she was sure were harmless, including staging faked parties and feigning joy as solitary men sang Happy Birthday.
A total of ten videos are playing on two projectors and a monitor in Nakadate’s latest exhibition, "Fever Dreams at the Crystal Motel," on view at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects, May 7-July 24, 2009. Exorcism in January (2009), the show’s most compelling work, features a balding pot-bellied man (one of Nakadate’s favorite collaborators) lying on a messy bed. Obeying Nakadate’s voiceover instructions, "go away spirits," "shake them out," he wiggles his body and waves his arms. Later, the roles are reversed, and he sits on a milk crate, giving the orders as Nakadate writhes on the floor, sharing his experience rather than exploiting his vulnerability.
A different kind of voyeurism unfolds in Good Morning Sunshine (2009). No longer serving as the object of the gaze, Nakadate casts herself (and the viewer) as an older, now invisible ogler. A female voice (presumably Nakadate’s) wakes up a series of sleeping teenage girls and cajoles them into removing more and more clothing, all the while reassuringly reiterating, "You’re so pretty, you know that. . . let me see what’s underneath, come on. . . ." The show also includes a group of photographs, and prices range from $1,500 to $7,000.
Andrea Fraser, "Projection"
Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Fraser has been practicing her own special brand of institutional critique since the mid-1980s, beginning with videotaped tours of exhibitions at galleries and museums that brought attention to the way art is presented, marketed and understood. In 2004, she stripped the art transaction to its bare essentials and sold a sexual encounter to a collector, exhibiting the resulting video documentation at Friedrich Petzel Gallery. In a concurrent show at American Fine Arts, all the artistic trappings she had done away with -- color, decoration, joy -- was represented by a mournful pile of discarded carnival costumes.
"Projection," Fraser’s latest installation, was on view at Petzel this spring, May 9-June 20, 2009. The title is a play on words that signifies both her artistic medium and the process of transferring emotions from their original object to the doctor during psychotherapy. And once again, Fraser forces viewers to watch her life’s intimate details, by reenacting transcripts from her sessions with a shrink in front of a camera.
Two projections alternated on opposite walls of a narrow claustrophobic room constructed inside Petzel’s already small project gallery, one starring Fraser as patient, and the other as doctor. The pair of monologues transforms the original conversation into a series of one-sided responses to unknown remarks. Sitting in a butterfly chair, Fraser as doctor authoritatively asks, "Do you have a problem with making a lot of money?" and then comments, "I don’t take artistic struggle seriously. . . what you do is not dangerous," turning the viewer into a defensive and angry patient.
As the analysand, Fraser sits in the same chair, twisting, fidgeting and becoming nearly tearful. "It’s not about stirring my soul, it’s about rearranging my mind. . . it’s mechanical," she complains, paradoxically expressing a longing for the poetry she so ruthlessly shuns.
Sadie Benning at the Whitney
In 1993, the then-17-year-old Sadie Benning became the youngest artist to be included in a Whitney Biennial. Her controversial PixelVision video self-portraits featured the role-playing teenaged artist exploring her queer identity by speaking directly to the viewer, often accompanied by handwritten texts, soundtracks of sampled music and friends wearing cartoon-like masks.
Benning also draws prolifically, in a wonderful folk-art style with a swift firm line and an unerring sense of abstract space. Play Pause (2006), a two-channel animated film first seen in 2007 at Ohio’s Wexner Center and now on view in the Whitney Museum’s lobby gallery, combines hundreds of her gouache drawings into a complicated narrative of ordinary city life.
Soccer games, squirrels eating garbage, dancing in bars, and sex are among the activities portrayed, along with views of garages, banks, construction sites, airports and stores. Black and white predominates, but beautiful colors also appear, sometimes in abstractions that appear next to scenes of women making love. The two-channel format intensifies the narrative quality by juxtaposing images of related events. Drawings are often seen entire and in detail: men reading the paper in the park, and then a close-up of newspaper headlines, for example.
Beginning with a ride on the subway and ending with a flight on a plane, Benning envisions a life of constant movement, most enchantingly rendered in the white line drawings of a flock of birds with teeth flying over the credits, next to a sky filled with clouds. The electronic soundtrack recreating ambient city noise is by Solveig Nelson; the show is on view Apr. 22-Sept. 20, 2009.
Rochelle Feinstein, "A Terrible Mistake"
The day after Michael Jackson dangled his baby son from a hotel balcony, he announced: "I made a terrible mistake," a remark, Rochelle Feinstein said, that immediately started her thinking about the fruitful possibilities of error. The result was a project called "I Made a Terrible Mistake," including paintings, photographs, videos, and audio -- all inspired by Jackson and by Barry White, the disco crooner who died in 2003.
A pocket-sized version of this potentially enormous installation can be seen until July 23 at APF LAB, a space donated to the Art Production Fund by Soho Mews. Eleven large paintings, three videos, three photographs, three digital prints on canvas, three disco balls, an iPod with earphones and an ailing miniature TV with a painted screen are crammed into a small storefront that is bisected by an unfinished sheet-rock wall. Works hang on walls and from the ceiling, lean against each other and sit on the floor.
Visible from the street for 24 hours a day, the exhibition is particularly effective at night. The side inspired by Jackson is illuminated by a spectrum of colored lights, and a large revolving disco ball sends reflected silver squares across the walls of the Barry White section. Light is also the subject of many of the works, such as Mandalay Bay Ladies Room (2005), a painting of a tiny video screen playing a movie of a band as it hangs absurdly over a roll of toilet paper in a Las Vegas hotel bathroom.
Other paintings include Auditorium (2004), a tempera image of a wordless marquee. An adjacent metal plaque explains that the space was originally named after Michael Jackson, but the sign was covered after he was accused of molesting a child. And We Love You (2004) features a depiction of protest signs on a silver background, with fragments of anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-Iraq-war slogans jostling each other like a babble of voices without bodies.
WhiteHouse (2004) is a melancholy uninhabited video of a disco spotlight roving over shelves filled with books, as White intones in his phantom bedroom voice: "People sometimes disagree. . . . I want you to know I really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, to make you sad," coaxing an absent woman into forgiveness without ever admitting that he made a mistake. In another little video called Dis-Gardened (2003), some pansies ostensibly swaying in a natural breeze are actually being killed by an exhaust fan, a pathetic fate for flowers in an artificial Eden.
"The music of Barry White and Michael Jackson offered the possibility of transformation in an age of highly volatile politics," Feinstein remarks. "It was a time when everyone -- gay, straight, black, white -- could find sensual redemption by losing themselves under disco lights." In the wake of White’s death and the collapse of Jackson’s ersatz paradise, Feinstein’s witty and poignant installation beautifully illuminates the frustrations of our imperfect lives. Prices range from $4,000 to $25,000.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.