Art Matters | At the Armory Show, China Takes the Spotlight

On 12/03/2014 by Site Default
Courtesy of the Armory ShowA painting by the artist Xu Zhen, whose works were co-opted for the graphic identity of this year’s Armory Show.

The Armory Show anchors what has held on as a robust art week for New York, in spite of similar events organized in the city during the milder month of May. The art fair on Piers 92 and 94 on the West Side Highway opened to the public this morning, and while one might say its theme is the same as ever — to make as much money as possible in five days selling contemporary (and modern) art — each year is more distinctively characterized by a regionally driven focus as well, and 2014’s is China.

The “Focus: China” section of the Armory Show is an encampment of 16 commercial galleries and four nonprofit spaces at Pier 94, clustered around a lounge dotted with blue exercise machines placed by the collective Polit-Sheer-Form-Office as a work commissioned by the fair called “Fitness For All!” The section is organized by Philip Tinari, an American curator who has been based in Beijing for the better part of a decade, where he is currently the director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

One of the most intriguing presentations is the Beijing gallery White Space‘s solo booth, featuring new work by He Xiangyu, an artist in his late 20s who first gained notoriety for boiling down, over the course of about a year, 127 tons of Coca-Cola into an apocalyptic sludge that he subsequently used to fill a pristine gallery in an environmental gesture reminiscent of the 1970s artist Walter De Maria’s “The New York Earth Room.” Here, he offers two new, albeit tidier, jokes about scale and material: a totemic egg carton made of solid gold, leaned against the wall and holding a single, real egg, and the title page of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” printed in black ink on black paper, essentially invisible when observed in a passing glance. The opposite wall is hung with a suite of oddly intuitive, synesthetic tongue drawings: every day, the artist draws how his tongue feels. Recently, he began rendering it in wax as well; one of such self-portraits is displayed under glass in the front of the booth.

Left: an installation by Nadim Abbas. Right: a piece by He Xiangyu.
Kevin McGarryLeft: an installation by Nadim Abbas. Right: a piece by He Xiangyu.

Another engaging presentation can be seen at the booth of Gallery Exit, from Hong Kong, where two Roombas, the robot vacuum cleaners that resemble overgrown smoke detectors, roam a space littered with spiky concrete balls: enlarged castings of dust particles. The installation, made by Nadim Abbas, is meant to underscore parallels between the development of militaristic technologies and their domestic extensions, bringing the war home in an absurdist, Jetsons-y dance.

This year’s Armory Artist, whose work is co-opted for the graphic identity of the fair, isXu Zhen. His oil paintings mimicking the goopy, striated qualities of toothpaste are replicated on the V.I.P. cards held in purses and wallets throughout the fair, and can be seen in their original form at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery‘s booth. MadeIn Company is also an alias the artist has been using since 2009, when he presciently sought to break away from a system in which artists are bound to a single name, brand and trajectory of activity contained by identity. Another Armory commission, easy to miss, and probably the best thing overall to see, is by Xu. A booth walled off on all four sides appears to be an architectural oversight, but in actuality houses an ongoing performance called “Action of Consciousness.” Inspired by Maurizio Cattelan’s emptying of the Guggenheim Museum in order to suspend his oeuvre from its ceiling, Xu’s boxed-off white cube contains people trapped within it, who every so often toss sculptural objects high enough to be spotted from the outside. The didactic text enumerates some of these as “a Roman column topped by a Chinese lantern or a wedding cake decorated with high-heeled shoes,” but it’s tough to pinpoint what they are by their fleeting appearances as they peek out over the walls.

This weekend continues with a two-day China symposium, also organized by Tinari. Saturday sets the stage by exploring the context and circumstances particular to Chinese contemporary art, as in the 2 p.m. session moderated by András Szántó, “The Chinese Art World Described as a System,” while Sunday zooms in on some specific currents in Chinese art itself, with a session called “The On | Off Generation” at 4 p.m., named for a seminal 2013 show at the Ullens Center, “ON | OFF,” which surveyed young Chinese artists (such as He Xiangyu, among others) who are making work that does not overtly appear “Chinese.” While the westernmost frontier of Midtown may feel a world away when wind chill is still a factor, this weekend is a rare opportunity to get an informed, firsthand tour of East Asia’s most developed art world, accessible via taxi.

Leave a Reply