A riveting sequence in Simon Leung’s new video, War after War, features a tall man in black lying on some colorful Central Asian textiles, like the corpse of an elder waiting for burial. He’s far from dead, however -- when he gets up he’s instantly recognizable as Warren Niesluchowski, an art world personality frequently seen at gallery openings and parties. Sometimes described as a professional guest, Niesluchowski is a curator, editor, writer and translator of German, French and Polish. He’s also the star of this 90-minute-long staged documentary by West Coast artist Leung, on view in a show curated by Rikrit Tiravanija at CUE Foundation.
The exhibition is the Hong Kong-born, Los Angeles-based artist’s first solo show in New York City since 1996. Its title, War after War, refers to an earlier work, done in 1993 at P.S.1 and also focusing on Niesluchowski. There, Leung gave his subject the punning pseudonym of "Warren Piece," rather romantically describing him as "cosmopolitan nomad" faced with a world constantly at war.
Around ten years ago, Niesluchowski lost his New York apartment. Since then he’s been enjoying the life, as he puts it, of a migratory bird, house-sitting or staying with art world friends all over the world, especially in New York, London, Berlin, Los Angeles and Warsaw. Multiple unspoken negotiations ensure that he’s properly entertaining and polite without ever being intrusive. An element of humiliation most would find hard to endure is also involved, since Warren is always the one in need.
Leung follows Niesluchowski from messy city apartments to pristine country houses, from chatting at parties to watching TV alone, and from snowy urban streets to the outskirts of a reveling crowd at sunset on Venice Beach. He must prove his identity to a stranger in London for keys, and is reintroduced to a cat in New York. Even in a hospital sickbed, he’s on the phone making plans to attend a gala. “Perhaps you shouldn’t travel so much,” a visitor (Leung) remarks, as he wonders if audible beeps are marking Warren’s heartbeat.
For Leung, Niesluchowski’s nomadic existence makes him a palimpsest of global cosmopolitanism. At the same time, Warren’s background -- child of Polish exiles, AWOL US soldier during the Vietnam War, participant in the European student revolutions -- provides an admittedly privileged metaphor for rootless refugees torn from their homes by senseless conflict. Voiceover recitations of Kant’s third definitive article toward Perpetual Peace are repeatedly heard throughout the video -- the essay is grounded in the ancient laws of hospitality that move Niesluchowski’s life, giving all foreign visitors the right to be treated as friends.
Alluding to war’s ubiquity, however, another disembodied voice describes a sign with the words “perpetual peace” inscribed on a painting of a graveyard. At one point there’s a close-up of the death of a fly, and then the camera moves back to reveal Warren peering through a magnifying glass, Singing an Italian paean to the struggle for liberty, he rearranges insect corpses on a white table, like a general deploying armies of expendable soldiers.
A view of tiny spectators crossing a bridge surrounded by a video panorama of the entire teeming world (shot at the Shanghai World Expo) provides an immersive artificial spectacle of glorified media globalism. Another sequence features Warren quixotically studying an exhibit near the gift shop in London’s War Museum -- conflict as commodity souvenir.
Standing in front of a slide of a dead soldier’s body, Niesluchowski discusses war’s esthetification, wondering if combat’s survivors feel dead. Combining philosophical profundity with insular art world observation, Leung’s multi-leveled study of one man’s unusual life is a timely reminder that the concept of home may soon become extinct. Even the installation includes traces of other places -- the film was originally made for a show at Orchard (a Lower East Side gallery now closed), and the chairs were lent by some of Warren’s N.Y. hosts.
Simon Leung, Mar. 24-May 7, 2011, at CUE Art Foundation, 511 West 25th Street, New York, NY 10001.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.