Gao Bo’s 高波 (born in Sichuan province in 1964) works have been pushing the boundaries of photography, painting, and installation while challenging the notions of disappearance, duality, and sacrifice. He discovered his vocation after the first trip to Tibet in 1985, where he produced a series of candid portraits with two cameras he borrowed from his teacher and from a friend. Between 1985 and 1995 he embarked upon five journeys to Tibet, capturing street life, Buddhist monks, and breathtaking landscapes.
Ten years after, Gao Bo conceived a new arrangement of these photographs. He went back to Tibet during the summer of 2009 in order to rework them by using his blood as ink as well as an automatical calligraphy he invented. Over the years, he has been increasingly reworking his photographs, covering them with thick layers of painting, adding pieces of fabric and wood, and even burning them. As the essayist and curator Alejandro Castellote writes: “All of Gao Bo’s work is a circular journey, a permanent cycle of leaving and returning.
This series about Tibet, immortalizing the ancient rites of Buddhist monks and the spiritually-infused everyday life in a spectacular landscape between earth and sky, holds a particular place in Gao Bo’s work. Although it is closer to a “traditional” photographic practice than the monumental installations to which he devoted his recent years, it contains the same will to experiment, the same desire to go back to the first photographs in order to extract from them truth in its purest form.
Ten years after shooting the series, Gao Bo conceived a new arrangement of the images. He then went back to Tibet during the summer of 2009, in order to rework them by using his blood as ink as well as an automatical calligraphy he called “language of the soul”. This invented photography, conceived by the artist with the help of Tibetan Buddhist monks, forms, image after image, a fictitious alphabet made of various fonts, thus becoming his signature as much as a universal language. Essayist and curator Alejandro Castellote writes: “All of Gao Bo’s work is a circular journey, a permanent cycle of leaving and returning. He creates images and returns to them in order to reprocess, modify or destroy them, inserting his work into this vital loop of creation – destruction that illustrates and affirms the evanescent nature of reality. The autobiographical and meditative character that impregnates his relationship with every aspect of art has its roots in the profound influence that Tibet has had on his personal development. It was the setting for his first photographs, and it could be said metaphorically that it is the metaphysical canvas on which he has traced his movement through life.”
Ai Wei Wei
Western governments should challenge China on human rights and stand up for their principles, dissident artist Ai Weiwei has said – lamenting the repression faced by Chinese activists but declaring that Beijing’s “business partners” in the rest of the world should not fear to make it worse.
One of the world’s most famous living artists, Ai has long run afoul of Chinese authorities, culminating in 81 days of detention in 2011 amid a wider crackdown on political dissent. He was subsequently banned from traveling overseas for more than four years and his passport was confiscated.
“It doesn’t matter it will hurt me or not, you have to do what you think is right,” Ai said during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “You have to believe they have to listen. You know, they have to care about their business partner … or they have to respect.”
He encouraged western governments to maintain pressure on China, even with the potential that it may lead to harsh treatment for activists. In recent years more and more foreign politicians have been willing to forgo discussions of human rights issues in order to forge closer economic ties with Beijing.
Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012 China has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on civil society, with hundreds of lawyers and activists arrested or jailed as the authorities have become less tolerant of any speech challenging the Communist party line.
“If you touch any political issues there’s no such thing as rule of law,” Ai said. “It’s getting really very bad, I should say, the situation. It’s almost no space.”
Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese artist living today. As an activist, he calls attention to human rights violations on an epic scale; as an artist, he expands the definition of art to include new forms of social engagement. In a country where free speech is not recognized as a right, the police have beaten him up, kept him under house arrest, bulldozed his newly-built studio and subjected him to surveillance. He is viewed as a threat to "harmonious society." The West did not invent revolutionaries. China has an illustrious history of dissidents, anti-authoritarian originals, and eccentrics, from the drunken monks of pre-history to counter-culture artists living in today's Beijing. Ai himself is from this long line of free-thinkers and writers, marginalized both by the right and left. From smashing an ancient vase to reciting the names of children who died due to government negligence, Ai's dramatic actions highlight the widening gap between the ideal and the real in Chinese society. He is also one of the earliest conceptual artists to use social media - Instagram and Twitter, in particular - as one of his primary media.
The earthquake project
The Chinese government rarely makes concessions to its citizens, especially when it involves allegations of governmental mismanagement and the actions of artist Ai Weiwei. However, the government’s unexpected announcement on May 5 that 5,335 students died in last year’s Sichuan earthquake appears to have been in response to efforts by Ai Weiwei and other Chinese activists to call the government to account for the deaths. This was the first official figure released in what has become a politically sensitive issue following accusations from parents that substandard construction caused the collapse of more than 7,000 classrooms in the region.
China’s release of the number, without any names attached, was a major concession to activists whose escalating calls for official statistics fueled an international media frenzy during the one-year anniversary. The official toll of the earthquake is 68,712 dead with 18,500 listed as missing and presumed dead. Following May 12, 2008, earthquake, the Chinese government pledged to publicly investigate the schools’ collapse, but subsequently reneged on that promise, even suggesting that the student deaths were the result of natural causes rather than faulty construction.
On May 29, at shortly after midnight in Beijing, Ai’s personal blog [blog.sina.com.cn/aiweiwei] was shut down by authorities in the middle of the two-day Duanwu (“Mid-Summer”) Festival holiday, when many businesses and government offices in greater China were closed. Ai’s posts on May 26, 27 and 28 recounted several incidents of police surveillance, including the tapping of his phone and his being followed by police.
Ai’s 76-year-old mother recently became a target of police attention as well. On May 26, four plainclothes policemen entered her home in eastern Beijing and interrogated her about Ai’s residence near the airport. She then phoned her son, who was attending a reception at the American Embassy for United States congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. After receiving her call, Ai rushed home. When the officers in his mother’s house refused to present identification, Ai dialed the emergency number 110. Additional police officers soon arrived and all parties went to the local police station to file a report, a copy of which was never provided to the artist.
Ai vented his frustrations with the opaque proceedings of the police in a short statement posted on his Google Group “Citzens’ Survey”—which he uses to post articles deleted from his personal blog—on May 27. Ai writes: “Citizens aren’t soft persimmons, and who you offend today may not be so easy to push around tomorrow. Don’t take and eat, and then turn around and feign ignorance.”
As previously reported in ArtAsiaPacific 63 (May/June), Ai’s blog served as an online platform for the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, an effort conducted by more than 50 researchers and volunteers to collect the names of the deceased students in towns across Sichuan province. Affiliated researchers traveled extensively within the affected region, recording their findings on Ai’s blog. Ai had originally planned to use this documentation in an artwork or an event to commemorate the earthquake.
While no specific event was held on May 12, as of May 23, the project has recorded the names of 5,190 students. Ai notes that the majority of those deaths—around 3,500—occurred in just 18 of the 14,000 damaged schools. He is quick to point out the discrepancy between his figure and the government’s, and he openly questions the veracity of the government’s numbers in light of their reluctance to release a list of names. A May 23 entry on Ai’s blog, which details the project’s methodology and findings to date, was meant to contrast with the government’s silence about its methodology. The artist believes his current figure represents 80 percent of those killed.
Foreign and Chinese journalists, initially allowed into the affected regions in the weeks after the 2008 earthquake, have since been subject to heavy restrictions. In the weeks surrounding the one-year anniversary, reporters from The Economist, The New York Times and other media outlets were repeatedly denied entry to affected areas. Researchers, including volunteers affiliated with the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project, became targets of police harassment, or were arrested and detained. One researcher in Sichuan reported being arrested 15 times. The significant international coverage of the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project may have contributed to volunteers’ difficulties.
For nearly four months after Ai began reporting his findings, the artist’s blog remained uncensored—a remarkable feat given his harsh criticism of the regime’s handling of the disaster. However, in the week leading up to and following the May 12 anniversary, his blog entries were systemically censored or deleted. Access to the blog remained open until May 28, but posts related to Sichuan were removed within hours. All internet portals in China, whether Chinese-owned or international, are required to remove or block web content deemed illicit by the government. Censorship had been uneven and blog content related to the Sichuan Earthquake Names Project remains accessible in English language translation on numerous news aggregators. Beginning May 21, Ai circumvented censors by creating a public Google Group forum where he posted previously deleted blog entries. The forum was accessible via a hyperlink in the sidebar of Ai’s sina.com blog.
The blog’s content changed to reflect the experiences of Ai’s researchers, and the increasingly strident editorial tone of his posts leading up to and since May 12 might have triggered recent censorship. Throughout April, Ai’s posts assumed a more journalistic and increasingly frustrated tone.
On May 16, in a post that was deleted within hours, Ai accused Chinese authorities of widespread negligence and malfeasance in Sichuan. Speaking to the victims and about the government, he wrote: “Your suffering and despair are yours alone . . . Their main task is to corruptly squander your wealth while sternly ordering you to keep secrets, misleading you to preserve your unhappiness. Because your misfortune is their great fortune.” Like earlier user-replies that included letters of thanks and stories of hardship, Ai’s May 16 outcry elicited sympathetic responses from readers. One commenter writes: “I support you, you are my single thread of hope in the darkness.”
A post on May 17, which was removed within hours, records researcher Zhao Ying’s efforts to recover two laptops, a camera and other personal effects confiscated by the Qingyang District police office in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. Identifying the policemen by name and badge number, Zhao details the hours he spent at the station, which concluded with the police chief asking: “Are you still investigating the official statistics?” and “Who do you work for?” before summarily dismissing him. On two separate occasions, researchers by the last name of Lu and Yang were beaten in the towns of Qingchuan and Jiangyou. Victim’s families and foreign correspondents unrelated to Ai’s project have reported similar treatment when investigating the aftermath of the quake.
Ai’s studio is discussing how best to memorialize the student deaths. Currently, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai, is exhibiting a memorial work, entitled Snake Bag, which consists of 360 grey and black backpacks that create a 15 meter-long snake. In its upcoming solo show, “According to What?” which will open on July 25 at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, will include a materially similar work, Snake Ceiling (2009), in which coiled snake bodies will hang from a gallery ceiling. Munich’s Haus der Kunst also has plans to unveil an artwork related to the research project at Ai’s solo show, “Is There Going to be a Title?” which will open on October 12.
On the morning of May 26, a post on Ai’s blog called for volunteers with engineering and technical expertise to aid in a “construction standards investigation,” a future Sichuan earthquake-related initiative. The post suggests that the privately conducted, state-sponsored investigations have been deeply flawed. Volunteers are asked to contact FAKE Design Studio to assist with their ongoing inquiry into the collapsed schools’ structural integrity.
Zhao Bandi 趙半狄
Known as “the panda man,” Zhao Bandi has made a name for himself creating a series of paintings, sculptures, installations, and costumes featuring representations of, allusions to, and even feces from panda bears. Impervious to the hailstorm of criticism he faces for allegedly exploiting a beloved national symbol, Zhao clings to the panda motif, using it blur the boundaries between art, advertising, and political activism. For instance, an acclaimed photographic series features computer-enhanced photographs of himself in dialogue (through speech bubbles) with a stuffed panda about issues such as drug abuse, air pollution, violence, and unemployment. For Zhao, the panda symbolizes China’s one-child policy, but his criticism is indirect: “I realized Panda's potential as a spokesperson, that through him I could talk about culture and society in a soft, humorous way,” he says.
The Art of Zhao Bandi
To fully understand the true meaning and significance of Bandi’s work, a closer look at the circumstances in China is mandatory. Chinese contemporary art constitutes a unique phenomenon. Quite different from its western counterpart, which has evolved across a succession of artistic movements, there was a significant rise in Chinese art when greater freedoms were introduced in the 1980s. The country’s artist swiftly embraced many modern and contemporary western art movements that had ”passed them by“, creating authentic pieces in terms of content as many works responded to the political and social challenges of the day. Since the turn of the millennium, a younger generation of artists has emerged that is both active at the very forefront of the global art scene and deeply committed to China’s own rich artistic heritage. Despite all the positive changes, there are still quite a few challenges in China. Inspired by public service information and government propaganda, Bandi and his toy panda engage in a sharp, deadpan dialogue. He uses humor and the persona of pandaman to tackle difficult issues of concern to contemporary society. Since the 90s, through photography, performances, installations, and videos, Bandi has used the panda to symbolize China’s one-child policy, to produce social and political commentaries on authority and power, and to act as his playful character in a series of odd and comical images.
Between Fiction and Reality
Strangely, Bandi was originally more famous abroad than in his homeland. He became recognized in Beijing because the same works that were catching the art world’s attention in Venice were simultaneously being displayed on 300 lightboxes at different locations in Beijing’s subway system, and on smaller posters inside the trains themselves. This “exhibition” was not organized by an art gallery, but by the artist himself after extensive negotiations with the Beijing subway authorities. Although his work frequently walks the fine line between fiction and reality, there are times when the two coincide – his video, A Tale of Love Gone Wrong for Pandaman, is more than parody. In 2003, the artist sued two media businesses for publishing his “Block SARS Defend the Homeland” poster without acknowledging his copyright. During the hearing, Zhao Bandi sits, forlorn, with his Panda. At the end, he reads as evidence a letter from his ex-lover, in which she explains why she is leaving him. She describes Zhao Bandi’s relationship to the toy panda as being sick and denies that the SARS poster could have anything to do with his personality. Because of the letter (or despite it), Zhao Bandi wins the case. It’s a reality that produces fiction that produces reality. However, sometimes his work is all about reality Let Panda Fly is a heart-warming family movie that tells the true story of thousands of children in Zhengzhou creating panda art to take community action and raise money for elderly orphans home. Based on a real-life event, the actors play themselves which gives the art film a touch of reality.
Yarisal & Kublitz
Both artists studied Art at Central St. Martins College of Art in London where they met and got together. In the beginning they used to work separately before they joined forces for a shared project and realized that they were a perfect match, not only in real-life but also in their artistic practice. Katja Kublitz who is originally from Denmark is the creative source of the couple as she develops the concepts for their common artworks. After carefully sketching the artwork, Ronnie Yarisal works on the implementation of the pieces, developing specific working techniques, collecting raw materials and hand-crafting the sculptures at their workshop. Both talk really passionately about their matter, seemingly very happy with their particular role.
Their latest group of work consists of African-inspired masks that are made of traditional woods, while also including artifacts of our modern world such as a Mercedes-Benz sign or a car refreshener. Katja called it ‘Surfing The Web Without Getting Wet’, as it’s inspired by the experience of surfing the Net, collecting a lot of knowledge in various fields that is usually still rather superficial and can’t be completely reproduced. So they decided to group items together that are taken out of their original context. Besides the internet, Katja Kublitz is also finding inspiration in specialized literature, fiction and her interest in ancient cultures, rituals and cult-objects that often find use in their sculptures.
" Our work address themes of faith, myth, and ritual. We investigate the complex connection between spirituality and the material world.
We have over the last several years sought to construct a proposition, both in title and form, about the power and paradox of everyday objects: namely, that they elicit the same feelings of intimacy and religious connection that relics produce when they act as channels for the faith of the believer. Our work seeks to capture the humor and beauty embodied in this process of transfiguration, as the mass -produced objects of our daily lives travel the great semantic distance from trash to holy artifact.
In our current series, now in progress, titled Will you Still Know Me Tomorrow, we explore the related tropes of isolation and belonging in contemporary culture, shifting concepts of mortality and the function of memory in an increasingly global yet ever more fragmented world. We play irreverently with the fragile line between the primitive and modern, sacred and the profane the precious and the kitsch; we craft ceremonial objects—shinning, transcendent, space-age relics—from the throw away artifacts and superficial images that frame our lives.
In this exploration, the role of materiality takes on a heightened significance. The sensual weight of metal, concrete, and wood, and the dramatic clash produced as it interacts with the deviant semantic play of each sculptural object, is the key to the balancing act that is the achievement of our work. "
The book with the highlight displayed in the exhibition
William Kentridge : Galerie Marian Goodman 2017 Paris
Jose leon cerrillo
José León Cerrillo’s practice includes posters, sculpture, installations, and performance that employ abstraction to disarm the relationship between object and subject. Like graphic design, Cerrillo considers the ways in which one receives visual information and converts it into knowledge or understanding. At first one looks past his works, exploring emptiness within them only to find that their significance lies in a tertiary thought process related to failure, loss, or absence. His frames that outline vacant space, for example, are telling of Cerrillo’s difficulty in salvaging content from form, or significance from words. He departs from language’s promise of uniform interpretation, recognizing it as a “system of meaning with inherent flaws and implied power structures.” He digs into graphic and linguistic systems, Modernist iconography, Constructivism, and Geometric Abstraction to seek out interpretations of familiar conflicts and frustrations that depart from art historical canon.
Julian Schnabel began his artistic career in the late 1970s and was part of a contingent of 1980s artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Salle who endeavored to restore painting to its pre-abstraction status. Their style permitted expressivity, even exuberance, and, in contrast to the pervasive intellectualism of Minimalist and Conceptualist art of the time, balanced technical concerns with emotional resonance. As a Neo-Expressionist, Schnabel reintroduced human sentiment to painting and eschewed flatness,heaping materials onto unconventional supports such as black velvet, weathered tarpaulins, and cardboard. In addition to painting, Schnabel's expansive creative impulse led him to branch out into music, photography, and film.
Schnabel has received widespread critical acclaim for work as the director of Basquiat, Before Night Falls, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among other productions, although he identifies himself as a painter first and foremost.
Schnabel’s mythic, often controversial career is rooted in his ability to morph and change using a vast alchemy of sources and materials composed and distributed across surface and support in defiance of the very notions of moderation, rationality, and order. His baroque attitude is embodied in audaciously scaled paintings that, over the course of time, have combined oil painting and collage techniques; classical pictorial elements inspired by historical art and neo-expressionist features; abstraction and figuration. Tackling appropriately expansive themes such as sexuality, obsession, suffering, redemption, death, and belief, he has employed a diversity of found materials including broken plates, diverse textiles such as Kabuki theater backdrops, tarpaulins, and velvet; a plethora of images, names, and fragments of language; as well as thickly applied paint, viscous resin, and digital reproduction.
Jeffrey "Jeff" Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for working with popular culture subjects and his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. He lives and works in both New York City and his hometown of York, Pennsylvania.
His works have sold for substantial sums, including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. On November 12, 2013, Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) sold at Christie's Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale in New York City for US$58.4 million, above its high US$55 million estimate, becoming the most expensive work by a living artist sold at auction. The price topped Koons's previous record of US$33.7 million and the record for the most expensive living artist, held by Gerhard Richter, whose 1968 painting, Domplatz, Mailand, sold for US$37.1 million at Sotheby's on May 14, 2013. Balloon Dog (Orange) was one of the first of the Balloon Dogs to be fabricated, and had been acquired by Greenwich collector Peter Brant in the late 1990s.
Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some view his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as kitsch, crass, and based on cynical self-merchandising. Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques.
Laurel Nakadate’s work in performance, photography, and film demonstrates an unusual level of humanity, as she foregrounds vulnerability, emotion, and sensitivity with a striking level of candor. On January 1, 2010, Nakadate (*1975 in Austin) decided to cry every day for one year, documenting the action in photographs and initiating a ritual that would let her “deliberately subject herself to sadness.” The artist produced a forceful performance that addresses issues of self-reflection, portraiture, and emotion. Her photographs provide deep insight into her private life, abashing observers while at the same time arousing their compassion. Art-historical quotations or “bad images” underscore the artistic character of the scenes. Nakadate’s “catalogue of tears” makes denied emotions visible, present, palpable, and momentary.
Interview with Laurel Nakadate
"Men just started talking to me. That's how it all began. I had moved from Boston to New Haven to study photography at Yale. In Boston, no one talks to you. You're invisible. Now suddenly everyone was talking to me, and I found it fascinating. Men started approaching me randomly in innocuous places, like parking lots or grocery stores and, normally, as a woman, you'd just walk away politely. But I decided to engage with them. Sure, I said, we can hang out.
I told them I was an artist and asked them if they wanted to make something with me. They all said yes and we'd go back to their apartments – either then or another day – and act something out."
Blimey, so which was the first video?
It was called Happy Birthday – it was 2000. I turned up at a guy's house in a party dress with a cake and we celebrated my – fake – birthday. He sang to me, and we ate the cake together. He had probably never celebrated someone else's birthday before, or even his own – he lived alone and had never married or had children.
I went on to make several other videos with men I didn't know. There was Oops!, where I went to men's apartments and danced with them to Britney Spears playing from a Hello Kitty boombox. Most of the men danced with me. Later I made a video called Lessons 1-10, in which I filmed myself posing as a life model in my underwear, with men drawing me. People have found the videos uncomfortable. That's OK, although they are supposed to be funny, too. Come on, two people who don't know each other in a tiny room, trying to have a birthday party? That's tragic and hilarious.
Those early encounters were as much about my desire to connect with strangers as the strangers' desire to connect with me. I was alone in this new place, with no real friends. The fact that I engaged with the men under the premise of art created, to an extent, a level playing field: everyone was taking a risk. Although you can never level the playing field when a man and woman are in the same room. It's not possible.
I grew up in the Midwest, which shaped my expectations of the world. To make the kind of work I do – which hopes for a beautiful thing out of an encounter with a perfect stranger – I have to be an optimist, I have to be trusting in humankind. My hometown was in the middle of nowhere. It created an odd dichotomy of knowing everyone, yet having a screaming desire to get out and experience the world, experience something giant and real.
Growing up I was part of one of only three Asian-American families in our area; I didn't feel like anyone around me, so have no comprehension of only hanging out with people the same as me. I've always felt vulnerable and that has given me, I think, a kind of meeting point with the strangers I encounter.
Did people question what you were doing?
Yeah. 'You're a young girl,' they'd say. 'Why are you toying with these weird old men?' But those men were my friends. The videos question people's judgments about who should be friends with who. I think that's important.
I undertook my first project (Girls' School) when I was an undergrad student at the Museum School in Boston. It was a straightforward photographic documentary, shot on 35mm, of college girls doing everyday things, and it was the start of my other fascination: girls becoming women, navigating the next steps of their lives. There's a lot of power and energy at that point – a girl can change the world, or she can implode. Many young women have said they identify with my work or feel empowered by it because I'm not portraying a naive woman or some vapid teen character; I'm looking back at the camera and saying: I know that you know that I know.
Does this play a part in your video series, Good Morning Sunshine, where you filmed young actresses waking up in bed? Where did you tell them they are beautiful and ask them to remove some of their clothes?
Yes. They were all girls about to enter a new stage in their lives, which excited me. But it was also the product of looking at those men's websites where you can pay to tell a girl what to do – you know, take her clothes off on camera. The guys say things like: 'Oh sweetheart, you look so beautiful today. Why don't you show me your panties?' I wanted to know what it would mean to have a woman walking another woman through that. Would it be maternal when I told the girls how pretty they were and asked to see what was under their pants? Would it be manipulative in the same way that those men's websites are?
After that series, a guy who ran one of those websites got in touch. He said: 'Would you like to come and be one of my girls?' It's not surprising, but it's fascinating to me how his mind went there immediately. He didn't think: 'Oh, she's deconstructing the notions behind these manipulated encounters' He just saw a girl who would potentially take her clothes off! I have folders of emails from guys like him; I thought about turning them into a piece, but I'd have to get releases signed. And I can't imagine some guy agreeing to be the dip-shit in my artwork.
Although there's no sexual contact in any of my work, it would be ridiculous to me to say that some of it isn't about sex. Take Lessons 1-10, when I posed as a life model in my underwear. Of course, people will argue that life drawing, and the dancing in Oops!, are sexual. I'd be fantastically naive to assume an absence of eroticism from the men (some of whom I only met once, some of whom I've been friends with for over a decade) across the board, but every single one was different. I couldn't say who felt what – it was never apparent to me at the time, and it's important for people to realize that.
That must have been intense work to be making in your early 20s…
Of course. But I never felt threatened or in any danger. Although more than 90% of those videos don't involve any touching at all, when you watch them there is a nascent sexuality there. They exist in the realm of anticipation – often the most powerful aspect of sex. But there is no sexual contact. And I was never exploiting anyone's loneliness or unmet desires. I did exit interviews with some of the men after the films, and all of them said they were so happy to be part of it; one said that it was the greatest experience of his life.
It comes down to people believing that fleeting encounters aren't valid. But they are. Ephemeral moments can be some of the most significant memories someone can have.
Laurel Nakadate's work is showing at the Zabludowicz Collection, London NW5
Wolfgang Tillmans is a German artist and one of the most influential contemporary photographers working today. Emerging in the 1990s with his snapshot documentations of youth, club, and LGBTQ culture, Tillman’s practice has expanded over time to include diaristic photography, large-scale abstraction, and commissioned magazine work. “I want the pictures to be working in both directions,” the artist has said. “I accept that they speak about me, and yet at the same time, I want and expect them to function in terms of the viewer and their experience.” Whether he is capturing landscapes, still lifes, or portraits, Tillmans’ images represent an almost obsessive need to self-document, not unlike the work of Nan Goldin and Conceptual artist Mike Kelley. Born on August 16, 1968, in Remscheid, West Germany, Tillmans spent the early part of his career in London after graduating from the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. In 2000, he was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize, with his win marking the first time the prize was given to a photographer and a non-British artist. Tillmans lives and works in London.
The opening today of “2017,” Wolfgang Tillmans’s survey at Tate Modern, is bringing a much-needed breath of fresh air to the London museum, and not because recent exhibitions might have been lackluster—on the contrary, the ongoing Robert Rauschenberg retrospective is a triumph, and the recent solos of Agnes Martin and Sonia Delaunay were impeccable, to name a few.
Yet, showing a living and breathing artist who’s making art in response to current events has turned those white walls into a stage that feels unquestionably more relevant.
And if there’s one artist who has been making work about urgent matters, it is definitely Tillmans. His “EU Campaign” posters became the defining pro-Remain, anti-Brexit artwork, ahead of the UK referendum last year. Articulating what many people had in mind but were struggling to find words to express, those posters became emblems, freely distributed and printed, stuck to windows and wielded in demonstrations.
Working tirelessly since the early 1990s, it’s been many years now since Tillmans’s oeuvre completed, with flying colors, the arduous journey from the pages of fashion magazines to the walls and floors of museum across the world—Turner Prize included, an accolade which Tillmans won in 2000, becoming the first non-British artist do so.
The transition somewhat echoes that of fellow photographer Juergen Teller. Both were born in 1960s Germany and started their careers as young artists in London. Both became beacons of youth culture thanks to their work for cult magazines like The Face or I-D. And, ultimately, both were accepted by museums, galleries, critics, and curators as “serious artists” (whatever that means).
But, while Teller’s mostly figurative photographic work feels humorous, buoyant, and theatrical, Tillmans’s work has always been introverted, exacting, and precise; keenly interested in formal experimentation and display, curious about the possibilities of abstraction, and definitely politically oriented.
“2017” is not a retrospective, Tate tells us, but this gathering of works—dating mostly from 2003 to now (with the exception of the 1983-89 series “FRAGILE”)—is exhaustive enough to encompass all the key strands of his multifarious practice.
Pretty much everything is here: portraits of friends and exquisitely-cropped fragments of the bodies of lovers; domestic still-lifes; clubbing scenes; travelogues of trips to Ethiopia, St. Petersburg, and Los Angeles; abstract, almost sculptural works in the shape of folded prints in box frames and paper drops; his works on tables, most notably his “Truth Study Center” series; artist books and magazine interventions; the pro-EU posters…
Here we also find his forays into sound installation—music being one of his most enduring passions—via his ongoing “Playback Room,” where music is played and lectures and conversation staged; performance, through the video Instrument (2015); and even running an artist space, Between Bridges, launched in London in 2006 and then transferred to Berlin, where Tillmans is now mostly based.
His voracious curiosity is palpable, as is his creative energy. In fact, surveying Tillmans’s career is akin to witnessing his relentless ambition and the development of his talent. Having mastered a signature photographic style, and having carved a name for himself in the world of fashion and editorial photography, was clearly not enough for him. He had more and bigger things to say, and had to find new means to say them.
Engaging with forms of the display was a natural step, a knack probably stemming from seeing his work laid out in countless magazines and books. The influence that Tillmans has had in contemporary display can’t be overstated, particularly in the now-ubiquitous style of exhibiting photography unframed and pinned to the wall with bulldog clips.
Perhaps as a continuation of his more textural photographs—depicting fabrics and still lifes so close up they become difficult to read—experiments in abstraction followed suit, many of them featuring what is perhaps his favorite motif: the fold, which, as the exhibition’s curator Chris Dercon kindly reminded us, was considered by the philosopher Leibniz as one of the most accurate ways to depict the complexities of the human soul.
In 2005, he began one of his most celebrated series: “Truth Study Center,” table-based installations, sometimes in very large clusters, in which he displays newspaper clippings, creating new readings and meanings while questioning the veracity of those claims.
“Truth Study Center,” which is ongoing, has always felt compelling, one of Tillmans’s most daring and astute series. But in our current “post-truth” world of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” it feels simultaneously incredibly prescient and of the moment.
“I was enraged and concerned and spending a lot of time reading media and thinking about all these different claims to the truth, ‘the big truth’ which was the ultimate justification behind all that violence and those wars. I realized that all the problems that the world faces right now arise from men claiming to possess absolute truths,” Tillmans told me in 2010 when I interviewed him about this specific series of works, which were being shown as part of the exhibition “The Last Newspaper” at New York’s New Museum.
Almost seven years have passed, and his words and works seem just as relevant, if not more. In the show, there’s a slew of explicitly political works, besides of course the anti-Brexit posters.
Particularly poignant is a 2016 series of images taken in border controls (“Border Installation”), and photographs of various seas and of a rescue mission in the island of Lampedusa, all referring to the plight of migrants and refugees, and how the western world is becoming a much more unwelcoming and dangerous place for those seeking new beginnings.
And yet, even at his most political and conceptual, there is always beauty and poetry in Tillmans’s work.
“This exhibition is not about politics, it’s about poetry, it’s about installation art. It’s about thinking about the world. I’ve never felt that the private and political can be separated, because the political is only the accumulation of many people’s private lives, which constitute the body politics,” Tillmans told me yesterday.
“My work has always been motivated by talking about society, by talking about how we live together, by how we feel in our bodies. Sexuality, like beauty, is never un-political, because they relate to what’s accepted in society. Two men kissing, is that acceptable? These are all questions to do with beauty.”
Ultimately, Tillmans’s work states the belief that art is valuable and has a purpose—that beauty can have a positive effect. His stance is basically the opposite of irony and jadedness. Instead, he is earnest and optimistic, and his works seem to say that the world is beautiful, that life and freedom are precious, and that we should all work together to secure and preserve them, especially in the face of current threats.
Mike Kelley was an American artist regarded as one of the most influential members of the contemporary Conceptual Art movement. Concerned with abjection, youth, class, and the divide between high and low culture, Kelley’s work was often both playful and grotesque in its skeptical investigation of what society considers as “normal.” Born Michael Kelley on October 27, 1954, in Wayne, MI, the artist studied at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he formed the band Destroy All Monsters with fellow visual artist Jim Shaw. His interest in politics and performance carried over into his graduate work at the California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s, where he studied with John Baldessari and befriended Tony Oursler. Working across disciplines in installations, sculpture, drawings, paintings, and videos, Kelley’s career was both eclectic and prolific. Suffering from depression throughout his life, the artist committed suicide on January 31, 2012, in South Pasadena, CA at the age of 57. The posthumous retrospective “Mike Kelley: Themes and Variations from 35 Years” traveled from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in Queens, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2013–2014.
post-punk, high art and social critique: the makings of mike kelley Acknowledging the late artist whose work continues to inspire musicians, designers, filmmakers and beyond.
The 1989 Los Angeles art scene represents a crucial period in contemporary art. Today creatives still turn to this incubator of post-punk for inspiration and intimidation. Central to this world was the late Mike Kelley, who worked alongside other icons like Paul McCarthy and Raymond Pettibon to challenge how we digested material from mass culture through art.
While somewhat under-represented in Australia, Kelley's practice explores sexuality, class, modernism and transcendence, all part of our national artistic landscape. In 1984 his work was included in the fifth Sydney Biennial. Over 30 years later, Neon Parc's curator Geoff Newton wants to reintroduce the artist to a local audience. Currently hosting Pansy Metal/Clovered Hoof, Neon Parc is home to the most significant Australian Mike Kelley showing since that Biennial a lifetime ago. The show includes a series of oversized silk banners, and seminal video works as well as a live program of musical performances inspired by Kelley's lifelong connection with the post-punk scene.
We sat down with the show's curator and long-time fan, Geoff Newton, to talk about why Mike Kelley's confluence of post-punk, high art, and social critique reverberates through contemporary art practice today.
Tell us about the exhibition and your motives to bring it to Neon Parc?
Geoff Newton: Mike Kelley is one of those seminal artists of the 21st century who really sort of galvanised a generation. A lot of his work has been influential on a number of West Coast L.A. artists, plus a number of international artists but there was just not a lot of his work shown in Australia. The work we're showing is a set of ten silk screen banners from 1989, which were made at a kind of formative part of Kelley's development as an artist, not only in L.A. but internationally. The banners embody Mike Kelley's sense of humour, his American/Irish heritage and they represent his trying to play around with an anarchic gesture around authority or conformity. There are a lot of things in Kelley's work which are unexpected but instantly familiar to people, like soft toys or things to do with school, or religion.
What made Mike Kelley a defining artist of a generation?
Mike Kelley came onto the scene at a time when punk and disco were kind of dead and the music world was looking for something else. What followed was I guess the pre-grunge, post-new wave era. He was making things that really reflected that attitude, those attitudes towards what was about to happen. It's kind of like the Reagan era. It's timely as well to be showing this work with Donald Trump getting the keys to the Whitehouse. Mike Kelley would be making art about that for sure. I think he inspired other artists to say, "ok, here's someone doing something different and something that's a bit more radical and charged". I think if you were to line up many of the artists, particularly the male artists, of the past 20 years, you'd see elements of Mike Kelley's practice seeping out.
And the exhibition has incorporated live performance as well?
Yes, we wanted to reiterate the connection with the genesis of the punk scene in L.A. without just renting a few punk bands and pitching a taco truck out the front. We worked with two groups who very much embody the spirit of Mike Kelley's art. The first act was by Philip Brophy - his performance kind of parodied a lot of rock and progressive rock styles. Then we had the Menstruation Sisters who used to be on Thurston Moore's label. While Kim Gordon would have worked with Mike Kelley more than Thurston, the association was nice. The Menstruation Sisters came out of the scene in the mid 1990s, when you had avant-garde and noise bands starting out but these guys just stripped things back to being a three piece. It's very much a live experience.
In an age of increasing political correctness, how have younger generations received Kelley's work?
It's been interesting having younger people come in and discover Mike Kelley for the first time and remarking that there is such a great sense of humour in the work. I think that comes from artists seeing the work of an older artist. Young artists are making work these days and it's so kind of polite and self-conscious about how it's going to offend or upset. There's so much being produced that's based on the audience reading or the outcomes of the work, rather than making the work and the work doing what it's supposed to do. And then not being apologetic for what happens when the work is doing what it's supposed to do.
Ultimately, what do you hope the audience will get out of this show?
I hope they can take away that it's a tiny glimpse into an artist's work who is under-shown or undervalued out here but who has widely influenced a lot of artists. And also that you can make art with a sense of humour, things don't always need to be completely serious. Art can be fun.
Art in a Box: The Hero’s Journey of Mike Kelley and Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites
It was 1978. David Bowie had just released Heroes into the new world wave about to crest into the looming decade. The consummate disenchantment of the late seventies still lay curdled on everyone’s palate and the world was indeed looking for heroes. At this very moment, at the decade’s shapeless, molten transition into the next defining ten years, Mike Kelley emerged from his studies at CalArts and embarked on the artist’s journey; that long expectant road winding into an unknown hopeful future, with all the intended stops on the line: from gallery representation to critical acclaim, to market acceptance and the ultimate inclusion into the permanent pantheon of contemporary artist.
But the journey for Mike was long and winding; a trajectory filled with obstacles and detours. Though represented by Metro Pictures, he never moved to New York, but stayed in Los Angeles. While New York’s critics and curators saw his voice as compelling, challenging and important, collectors and dealers remained unmoved. Mike’s work was incisive, self-reflective, ironic, sentimental and deep. It exposed the underbelly of a culture that was already weary of itself, ready to escape rather than reflect. And New York buyers were not up for that challenge.
By the time the Zeitgeist exhibition opened in Berlin in 1982, and the lofting terraced walls of the Martin Gropius Bau were covered in the prescribed three by four meter sized paintings, a taste for large scale paintings was formalized with a call for the “heroic.” Fellow CalArts alumni, David Salle, Eric Fishl and Jack Goldstein had preceded Mike Kelley by only a few years. They, along with Julian Schnabel and Robert Longo, and Europeans such as Georg Baselitz, Rainer Fetting, Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia, were now providing the kind of large-scale heroic canvases the market was hungry for.
As the early 80’s bled forward with a deep conviction of its own magnificence, the post oil-crisis boom fueled a generation of material boys and girls, and NYC’s art scene exploded with its own sense of entitlement. By the mid 80’s Julian Schnabel was summer surfing in Watermill, and David Salle was a regular guest at Larry Gagosian’s in Bridgehampton for lobster and cocktails. Eric Fishl was also a staple in the Hamptons, embracing the life with his painted beach bodies. I was there myself in those sunny days where poolside afternoons were spent with Anna Wintour and Isaac Mizrahi, and dinners at Calvin Klein’s with Billy Joel playing the after dinner tunes. But in this special world, Mike Kelley was nowhere to be found.
The largesse and pride of the abundance of the 80’s made the me decade look like a time of noble self-sacrificing. Wealth became style and an existential vanity prevailed. Everything was heroic, from shoulder pads to the new wave of the permanent hair waves that inflated head sizes and egos. It was a time in art both enormously lucrative and limited by its often narrow, temporal influence.
All the while, Mike Kelley, an artist ahead of his time, remained living in Los Angeles and working in thrift store media. When everything was 80’s shiny and new, Mike Kelley collected old rag dolls and fabric toys, used crocheted blankets and discarded stuffed animals and made works with titles of deep pathos and sentimentality such as More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987). In his From My Institution To Yours (1988) he reflected ironically on the decade’s obsession with the prosperity and lifestyle in the office with the mundane juxtaposition of office cartoons.
As the pervasive culture rode out the cocaine-injected decade, Mike Kelley had already grasped the decline of the culture itself and reflected it in every one of his works. But Mike Kelley understood the culture in a way that the culture couldn’t understand itself. And he remained, though critically appreciated, unembraced by the art world at large, and by an unwilling public to see itself so reflected.
Then in 1990, a wall came down, a war went up and the art market went bust. Galleries were in trouble. Artists were in trouble. Whatever nevermind. Everyone had lost their religion. The best Salles and Warhols were selling for half or weren’t selling at all. Backrooms were filling up with inventory that wasn’t moving. No one was buying and no one knew what anything was worth. If you were an artist not yet established, you had no choice but to work the bust. Might as well do what you want. Take chances. There was nothing to lose.
Mike Kelley, who had sought recognition and understanding for over a decade, now found himself standing at the door of an art world that had suddenly closed. Once again on the outside, he took his journey to the one place where a creative freedom was fomenting out of the anarchy of the crippled establishment: Cologne. Here artists like Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Georg Herold were taking risks. And gallerists like Rafael Jablonka were willing to go along.
Europe suited Mike Kelley. It was a place that had a perspective on America that was as wide and distant as his own. And it was in Cologne that Mike Kelley began the construction of his most important work of art; a work that would span nearly the entire decade in its evolution, invention and inspiration: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites.
As the early 90’s nursed its considerable hangover from the euphoric high of the new wave that had become the old wave, it did so crawling not only to the end of a bloody century, but the close of a millennium, the start of which would have never recognized its own end. The burden on the popular arts to capture and reflect its own time was like the gloaming twilight of consciousness before sleep: it was as if humanity and its artists were tired of the crush of time. Uncertain of what it was and would become, the culture vacillated. The century’s last-gasp tech boom created the last big bubble to burst and injected the art world with much needed new capital, but no sense of a clear direction. By 1999, all that remained was the frantic looming Y2K disaster, as the absurd consummate conclusion of an entire civilization’s millennial achievements.
Mike Kelley’s work had always reflected his prescient sensitivity to the decline that lay both behind and still ahead. In 1999, Mike Kelley, our central hero, finally crossed the threshold and left the ordinary world behind. And the final completion of Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites came out of its shipping box from Cologne and emerged at the Kunstverein Braunschweig, where it was exhibited for the first time in its entirety.
Europe is quick to love and hate America for all it has and doesn’t have. With Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites Mike Kelley had created a quintessentially American environment, and explored the American dream expressed through the excess of consumption, bulk buying, and the habit of collecting by a prosperous society that believed its own myth; a society obsessed with luxury and life-style, lavishly garish color coordination and the most transient objects of low quality, which ironically stand for quality of life. All of it scented and deodorized like the constant cleansing of a bad conscience. The European sensibility appreciated Mike Kelley’s culturally reflective work, and Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites was critically and culturally embraced.
Every hero’s journey has its tests and obstacles. Just as Mike Kelley seemed to have finally broken through, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites did not sell. Glimpsed by only the special world willing to pay attention, it went back into a box, and remained in its box with Rafael Jablonka in the Jablonka Gallery in Cologne, unsold and unseen for many years to come.
It was the year 2000. If the nascent culture had any hope that it was on the brink of a trail blazing adventure into the future, it was quickly dashed. On September 11th, 2001, the newborn millennium hadn’t even caught its first breath of life, before it retreated into its protracted stunned suspension.
Mike Kelley’s work remained in its box, waiting for the ally that would help him to enter the special world in order to fulfill his heroic journey. In 2003, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites finally found its ally. Curators and art critics had grown a new generation. Not raised on Warhol, they saw value in artists like Richard Prince and Mike Kelley. A brilliant art advisor by the name of Todd Levin counseled his New York client, Adam Sender, a young hedge fund millionaire and ambitious collector, to buy the massive piece. Adam Sender had procured a building and was planning to start a foundation for the arts. Levin advised Sender to buy Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites as an important piece for the collection. In those days you couldn’t buy a drawing by Jean Michel Basquiat for $400,000. But Sender bought Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites for exactly that, and the work finally left Europe and made the journey across the ocean to its spiritual home in America, arriving finally at the hub of the art world in New York City. Still it remained in its box. The quintessential American work would not be seen by anyone for many years to come. The road of detours seemed endless.
In 2006, as the emerging culture had turned the word “security” into its own contronym, and Andrew Powter’s Bad Day summed up the decade, Adam Sender put Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites up for auction at Phillips, de Pury & Co. Auction House, never having once taken it out of its crate. But something had changed in the three years that had passed. The work had a presale low estimate of 3,000,000. It sold, under asking and under expectation, but nonetheless for 2.7 million. Suddenly there was a market for Mike Kelley. Signaled not in the least by the buyer: one of the smartest, most influential collectors in art, Peter Brant.
A generation of art students had become art critics, art advisors and curators. They had caught up to Mike Kelley’s sensibility. And they were talking. Peter Brant had acted on the new understanding of Mike Kelley and was collecting his work, signaling that a significant collectors market actually did exist for Mike Kelley. Larry Gagosian showed Mike Kelley from 2005 through 2011, with larger and more important works and exhibitions with every show. And the recognition for Mike Kelley grew. Bolstered by the New York exhibits and the auction sale, Mike Kelley was finally cresting the consciousness of a market that had been slow to wake up to his artistic accomplishments.
Validated and valued, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites still remained in its box. And though, after twenty years of struggling, the trend was finally climbing in his favor, the reward of the hero came too late for Mike Kelley.
Mike Kelley’s last Gagosian Gallery show on 24th Street, just steps away from his first home, Metro Pictures, had a title with more than just a tinge of sad irony, named Day Is Done. For reasons he alone could ever truly know, the road back for the hero proved to be too long and too arduous. Mike Kelley committed suicide on January 31, 2012, in Los Angeles, and ended his personal journey in this life.
But his greatest achievement still sat in its box waiting for the promise of its own fulfillment. With its master now gone, the call of the hero went up. It was up to Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites to become the phoenix to rise from the ashes of a tragic ending to a brilliant artistic life that never saw its full promise realized and to deliver its redemption.
Later that same year, Perry Rubenstein embarked on his own journey’s call and moved from his West Chelsea, New York location to open a gallery on the left coast, in the growing, vibrant new art center of Los Angeles. The exquisite space, designed by Kulapat Yantrasast, opened in the fall, as though designed just for the resurrection of the hero and the completion of the myth. By collaborating with Peter Brant, Perry Rubenstein Gallery, interested in embracing the Los Angeles artist in the new Los Angeles location, scheduled an exhibition for the last show of the year.
Like a soldier returning from battle, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites finally made its way home to Los Angeles, and into the Perry Rubenstein Gallery, where the work finally came out of its box. As the heavy wooden crates that housed the “central mass” and “satellites” were pried open, they revealed the multi-colored elements of the installation like the bonbons of a long held promise. Mike Kelley was finally home. And Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites was finally, and for the first time, shown in its entirety in America, in the creative and spiritual home of its master.
Out of the resurrection of the hero comes the completion of the journey, and the return of the hero with the elixir gained through his perilous path. The work was installed and celebrated at an opening dinner with many of Mike Kelley’s fellow artists and friends in attendance such as Barbara Kruger, Paul McCarthy, T. Kelly Mason and the legendary curator, Paul Schimmel. I was there on that glowing, candle lit evening, having long made my own journey from my Chelsea days to LA, a city in the process of its own resurrection.
As Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites revolved and scented the gallery for an appreciative audience, Perry Rubenstein opened up talks with MOMA, arguing for the museum’s acquisition of the piece. Without hesitation, MOMA agreed, eager to embrace the Los Angeles based artist. Mike Kelley, who had walked the artist’s perilous path, would finally enter the pantheon of America’s most significant artists. MOMA validated the brilliance and importance of the work of Mike Kelley and acquired Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites for a significant price, significantly higher than its last auction sale.
It is 2013. The world has survived its latest Armageddon, and David Bowie has released his first album in a decade appropriately called The Next Day.
The journey of the artist and his work is complete. Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites is permanently out of its box. Rather than stowed away in obscured storage rooms, languishing in the recesses of galleries and the homes of collectors who tried but could not give the work its due, MOMA will now bring Mike Kelley and Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites to its full revelation in the art world’s sacred city that Mike Kelley himself never reached: New York. And a day’s public of 5000 visitors will be able to view and appreciate the masterpiece and its master, and Mike Kelley is a hero for more than just one day.
Navarro was born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and the dictatorship of his homeland has had a profound impact on his work, both in his choice of medium and in the meaning his neon sculptures and pieces of the faux-furniture hold. As he grew up during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Navarro was used to electricity being shut off to keep citizens at home and isolated; “All the pieces that I’ve made make reference to controlling activity, and electricity was a way to control people.”
An example of Navarro's work being steeped in his homeland's history while also speaking to current political debates, is his "You Sit, You Die," which consists of a lounge chair built from white fluorescent tubes. "'This is my version of the electric chair,' the artist explains. Electricity was one of the tools of torture preferred by the Chilean government, but the piece also has local currency. On the paper seat, he has written the names of every individual executed in Florida by electric chair, to bear witness to the state's record on capital punishment."
Navarro also works with mirrors, alongside light, in which viewers lose themselves in an apparently infinite space, as neon phrases or structures loom out, and suggest what lies beyond. These abyss-like works can link back to Navarro's pre-occupation of being abducted as a child, as he navigates his past and readily admits: "There is a certain amount of fear in my pieces."
Fashioned from a single metal tube bent into a sleek, low-slung frame, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair was a touchstone of Modernism, a manifestation of the movement’s faith in technology, convenience and the promise of a better life. In the artist Iván Navarro’s rendition of the chair, the frame is made from three neon tubes in a glowing shade of disco-era purple. Navarro’s “Red and Blue Electric Chair” is another Modernist remake, this one in the image of Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue Chair from 1918. “It was kind of a building block for me,” Navarro says of the fluorescent piece, an exercise in materials and formalism. Unlike the Bauhaus approach to chairs as “machines for sitting,” Navarro’s artwork is not for sitting at all, and he would be more apt to refer to his chairs as machines for killing. “Neon is fragile,” he says, “but it can electrocute you.”
Navarro was just a baby when Gen. Augusto Pinochet orchestrated a coup d’état in Chile in 1973. But the memories of Pinochet’s brutal regime during the following two decades still resonate with the 34-year-old artist, who now calls Brooklyn home. What Navarro remembers most about his childhood was the fear of being “disappeared,” as many political dissidents were. In order to better understand this dark history, Navarro uses light — a symbol of hope and truth — as his medium. “It wasn’t until I moved to the States that I learned the extent of what happened in my country,” says Navarro, whose father was a left-leaning university dean. “Chileans are more silent about it.”
Navarro constructs chairs, ladders, doors and even shopping carts from fluorescent and neon lights. With their ambient glow, the works are seductive, and yet with the live current coursing though them, they are admittedly unnerving. “There is a certain amount of fear in my pieces,” Navarro says, navigating through his studio located deep in the industrial bowels of Bushwick. (He’s since moved to Williamsburg.) Propped up against the wall is a shallow aluminum-frame door lined with brightly colored bulbs, part of a door series, the Edge, that the artist has been working on for the last two years. At first glance it looks slightly carnivalesque, but as you peer in, the light’s reflection in the door’s glass creates a trompe l’oeil effect — as if the illuminated portal goes on forever, spiraling toward some kind of abyss. “I make spaces in a fictional way to deal with my own psychological anxiety,” Navarro says.
His work has touched a nerve in art superpowers like Charles Saatchi and is doing a brisk business at the auctions (one of his door triptychs went for $84,000 — more than four times the original estimate — at Phillips last spring). Next year Navarro will have solo shows at Tufts University, outside Boston; Galerie Daniel Templon in Paris; and Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He is also collaborating with his girlfriend, Courtney Smith, a sculptor who reworks discarded furniture, for an exhibition at the G Fine Art Gallery in Washington. Currently, his “Joy Division,” a glass table, with a swastika base made from red fluorescent lights, is in a group show, “The Disappeared,” at SITE Santa Fe in Santa Fe, N.M. The show deals with those who were kidnapped and killed by their governments during the dictatorships that plagued Latin American during the mid- and late 20th century.
One of Navarro’s earlier works, “You Sit, You Die,” is a lounge chair built from white fluorescent lights. “This is my version of the electric chair,” the artist explains. Electricity was one of the tools of torture preferred by the Chilean government, but the piece also has local currency. On the paper seat, he has written the names of every individual executed in Florida by electric chair, to bear witness to the state’s record on capital punishment. Then he delivers an extra jolt — the joints are fastened with shoelaces, an item confiscated from prisoners to prevent them from hanging themselves.
Always a provocateur, Navarro has even taken jabs at the art world, which he says is now ruled by the principles of consumerism instead of creativity. His video “Homeless Lamp, Juice Sucker” features two men with a fluorescent-bulb shopping cart — it’s a Dan Flavin on wheels — strolling through Chelsea’s gallery district. They pass blue-chip establishments like Barbara Gladstone and the Gagosian Gallery, stopping to break into lampposts to plug in their cart. They are latter-day Robin Hoods, stealing “power” from the rich (the art world, the government) to give to the poor. Navarro’s cart is empty. But when it lights up, it gives off a blinding white glow. Perhaps there is hope after all.