The second annual Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) convened in New York for a few days in early November—days of almost non-stop indulgence in the ultra-modern as well as in handkerchief waving to the ghosts of the avant-garde.
Located on a pier over the Hudson River at a particularly unprepossessing intersection on the far west end of midtown Manhattan (directly across the street from Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club—surely a must-see on every art-lover’s itinerary—with its fake acropolis on a low-rise building of mostly boarded-up windows), ACAF drew exhibitors from all over the globe: Tokyo, London, Madrid, Paris, Geneva, Dhaka, Dubai, and beyond. And while it’s true that the Fair represented artists from South Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines as well as from Kazakhstan, Iran, and Turkey, it was, in fact, China’s show nearly all the way. At least in quantity.
I arrived the afternoon of November 6, just in time for ACAF’s “media preview,” which turned out to be a euphemism for unguided tour. Works were still being hung; employees and interns frantically traversed the long corridors with hammers and power drills in hand as opening night approached. There was a certain contagious charm to all the last-minute rushing about. Young men doffing intense expressions carried trays and platters with the swift earnestness of waiters bringing forth food, except that their cuisine was inedible. They held aloft rose-patterned porcelain sculptures of exotic dead animals (a baby leopard, a wild boar, a gopher) in coiled positions with extremities still on. (This, I later learned, was Fu Jijiang’s Mongolian Feast.) Elsewhere, a Japanese tea ceremony featured a man in traditional attire brewing matcha in a 400-year-old kettle. At the opposite end of the dais, two dignitaries in business suits knelt to receive tea as cameras rolled. And while this went on, so did Yibin Tian’s Control, a performance piece in which rifle-toting men uniformed in North Korean military outfits paraded around on guard duty. There was very much a fashion show aspect to these circling arcs of VIPs, translators, gallery owners, and members of the press. Indeed, it all led up to designer Angel Chang turning the pier into a kind of runway with models showing off her Best of Collection. If it had been a movie, it might have been a remake of Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear, as directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien.
On a cursory swoop through the exhibitors’ displays, my first impression was: relentlessly trendy and alarmingly short on substance. What else could I have made of So Youn Jeong’s ceramic and porcelain figurines of Donald Duck and Pluto, to say nothing of her Mickey and Minnie Mouse? Fealty to cartoons emerged as a recurring theme at ACAF. Also looming large were the heads of Mickey and Minnie festooned on top of human forms—a man and woman clad in suits and ties, a plaid shirt for the lady, and all in black and white, save for their glittery blue eyes.
It wasn’t just cartoon characters that seemed disproportionately on view, but cartoonish, explosively violent works that reveled in ugly ways of seeing the world. These included, yet weren’t limited to, a preponderance of paintings depicting babies, usually giant in scale, sometimes tattooed with dragons, sometimes not. If I passed a stall where the works were predominantly these mammoth baby heads, or pictures of swine, or of wide-eyed, manga-esque little girls sporting bowl cuts and/or severe bangs, I didn’t look any further.
Disappointingly, Zhang Xiaogang, an artist whose Kafka-inspired paintings and Written Memories photographs were highlights of the 2007 Shu: Reinventing Books exhibit I caught at Seattle Asian Art Museum, turned up as one of the chief perpetrators of works that embrace creepiness for its own sake. His silkscreens, The Boy and Yellow Memory, were bulbous, frontal portraits from the school of giant-head dysfunctionality, while his Big Family series presented children or childlike figures that were ostentatiously free of innocence.
Almost equally disconcerting, an obsession with Coca-Cola, or at least its logo, flourished. Ai Weiwei defaced a centuries-old bronze urn from the Han Dynasty by painting the soft drink’s emblem across it. His gesture could be read as a statement decrying the modernization of China and its rampant commercialism. But the thing is: What could be more commercial than that? Likewise, Beijing’s the Luo Brothers (taking some sort of prize, in my book, for consistently dreadful work) hover a Coke sign over a mountain range in the oil painting Welcome to the World Famous Brand. The Brothers use saturated color and cheery imagery to drive home their cynical point. Cherubic, diaper-clad infants and toddlers stand on or ride atop koi, as if the fish were a magic carpet or a locomotive. The ever-present corporate logo figures not only as the pinnacle of the canvas, but at the bottom as well, on ovals that may or may not be upraised toilet lids. The Brothers’ crassness descends to a new low in a solid gray fiberglass sculpture (part of their Welcome Welcome series) depicting a pigtailed infant crawling on a six-pack of Coke, its arched derriere thrust skyward, as its braceleted paw reaches for the top of a hamburger bun. The values of trash culture are instilled in us, literally fed to us, from birth, the Luos none too subtly suggest. How then can we expect anything, except “art” like this, reinforcing our collective vulgarity?
After all that, it came as a sumptuous treat to discover the self-portraits of Paris-based South Korean photographer Moo Hyoung Kwon. Very tall and lean, the 39-year-old Kwon (who looks to be about 6”4’) sports a willowy, cascading tower of nearly floor-length dark hair. His black-and-white images date back a decade, when Kwon had a shaved head. The unframed photos take us, inch by inch, through the artist’s ever-growing mane and beard. In these shots, Kwon appears nude; in the more formal, framed portraits, set on an ocean shore, he stands swathed in billowing yards of white silk, his facial and head hair sometimes braided to stick out in all directions. In one or two of these, he earnestly listens to a sea conch. Kwon’s ambitious project has to do with a rebirth metaphor, or a cycle (he plans to shave his head again, then embark on another ten years or so of growth) or it could be an excuse to show off his svelte figure. Somewhere between the opaque concept and the language barrier that he and I and his translator faced, intentions were lost. But there’s no denying the nerve of his images.
In general, photography was the strongest suit at ACAF. Among the artists working in black-and-white, Manila’s Isa Lorenzo, India’s Annu Palakunathu Matthew, Tokyo’s Mayumi Terada, and the single-named, Daegu-born Boomoon were standouts. In Boomoon’s Naksan series of wintry seascapes on Lambda prints, rain, mixed with snow, falls over tempestuous waves before the scene dissolves into an all-white lower half. In their expressive immediacy, these contemplative, wide-angle horizontal splits capture an awareness of motion within the wind-whipped snow and the churning ocean. Furthermore, for the viewer who beholds them long enough, they give you the sensation of being pulled into the sea.
Both Terada and Matthew used chiaroscuro to evocative effect. Terada’s quiet, minimalist work, Curtain, features a white tapestry blowing from the right across an empty room of gray shadow, bringing with it a trio of slanted light pools on the left center of the frame. Murkier than Terada’s impeccably spare formalism, Matthew’s Memories of India, a set of a dozen 5 x 5 silver prints, are luxuriantly enigmatic miniatures, dusky and intimate. In the most mysterious of these, two small silhouettes peer out of a window towards an awning; above these darkness-shrouded figures loom two large crosses and seven smaller ones—carvings of a Christian church through which the sunlight pours.
From the Philippines, collagist Isa Lorenzo fragments physical space into shards of memory. Leafing through a Tupperware container of her late father’s decades-old photographs, Lorenzo mixes up snapshots from different eras to enter into or to heighten a deeply emotional ambiguity. Much of her work in The Moro Negatives creates an almost cinematic effect of fade-ins and fade-outs, isolating certain images within the overall picture, or overlapping shots within shots. On display at ACAF, Lorenzo brought with her 1963, a stunning juxtaposition of four homes her family lived in, from a time before she was born to the year her father died. Of this final house, only an overhead light fixture remains—the space around and below it spirit away into a white blur. With this, Lorenzo achieves a visual equivalent of how our memories, however cherished, inevitably abandon us.
In the realm of color photography, China’s Mao Yu and Chen Jiagang were the major contenders, although I’d be willing to cut a little slack to Kazakhstan’s Almagul Menlibayeva. At once glossy and stark, Menlibayeva’s Lambda prints of women survivors within a ravaged, seemingly primordial landscape veer close to tipping into staged melodrama, yet something (usually) saves the shot. In Steppen Goddess, two women clad in layers of gauze cover their faces with both hands, as if ashamed, or unable to bear the aftermath of devastation. The sky may be bright blue, yet all around are rubble, crumbling bricks, decaying walls. Menlibayeva allows herself a small luxury in the form of feeble little chandeliers, which serve as a motif in this collection. In the twilight-bathed Cocoon, another woman in gauze hangs from the center of a stone pillar. Her face peeks out from her toga, while a chandelier wrapped into the cloth functions as a kind of illuminated headpiece.
By far her most disturbing print, the vertical Portrait of My Daughter reveals the chandelier at its top center to be nothing more than strung together wind chimes. Below it stands a little girl of perhaps six, nearly engulfed by the puffy sleeves of a too-big white dress. She looks straight at the camera, the shack walls around her streaked with dirt. On the floor are the entrails and hacked-up remains of an unidentifiable animal. Amid these bloody chunks of butchered meat on plastic lining, a blackened, swollen foot with toes splaying outward literally and figuratively points up the horror of the scene. Although contrasting her daughter’s serene sweetness to a slaughtered animal might smack of unearned provocation, in Menlibayeva’s hands it’s a gimmick that works, one that transcends mere shock value.
If Chinese artists were responsible for the gaudiest, tackiest items on display at ACAF (think anything having to do with likenesses of Chairman Mao, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, or Godzilla), then the nation was also represented by two superb photographers. First, Chen Jiagang’s Third Front series of C-prints on dibond documents the ruins of military factories begun by Mao in the 1960s. A former architect and a former factory worker, Chen has an eye for beauty in bleakness. Chen, working primarily with a palette of dark, silvery grays and dingy, metallic textures, has an aesthetic reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai. In Baiyun City, Chen places a young woman in a white cheongsam at the edge of an industrial wasteland. She looks at us, our tour guide, a wildflower able to bloom in this desolate terrain. Another woman, this one holding a pink parasol, stands at the precipice of a rain-slicked walkway in Cable Bridge I. Chen keeps her at a distance—his long lens peers down from a flight of cement steps leading to the bridge. These lovely young women reappear throughout Chen’s Third Front, sometimes hidden in the margins of the frame. (As talismans largely devoid of hope, Chen’s women cannot help but recall the mistresses orbiting around Tony Leung in Wong’s 2046.)
Second, and even more rewarding, there’s Mao Yu’s 2008 photograph Tree of Man. For a 28-year-old artist, Yu’s work is unusually perspicacious. Six growing boys, each individually bundled within orange swaddling clothes, dangle from sashes from the bare winter branches of a massive tree. Yu sets these brightly colored cocoons against an austere backdrop of fog-shrouded field and overcast sky of silver/white. On the ground below, a naked, fully-grown man lies parallel to the center of the tree trunk—a waking emblem of what the boys in the branches will be once they no longer need their orange wombs.
Among the large-scale installation pieces at ACAF, Ran Hwang’s Dreaming of Joy alone invited tactile participation. If the door to the steel cage were open, you could wander in (as I did) and scoop up handfuls of the red buttons accumulated on the floor, just to let them scatter where you please. These ruby-red discs once belonged to a vanishing crow on the far right end of the cage, a crow whose beak, head and most of its breastbone, all made of buttons pinned to the wall, are intact, while its wingspan and feet are disintegrating. Barely perceptible on the cage’s left, another crow, outlined by white buttons on white, peeked into the frame. Playful and invigorating, Dreaming of Joy was utterly bewitching, even on the nights the steel bars remained shut.
I had mixed feelings re Maki Hashizume’s Gulliver, an installation of artificial lawn that initially struck me as questionable. Clumped together on one end of this Astroturf carpet are three green cottony lumps standing in for mountains. (Aside from their color, these towers suggest Richard Dreyfuss’s experiments with mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Just as I’m about to dismiss it, I meet the artist: a charming young lady from Osaka who holds degrees in architecture and sculpture. Hashizume so thoroughly captivates me with her visions that I can’t bear to write anything negative about her work.
A placard invites persons to sit on the “mountains.” Do they, I ask her. “Yes,” she says, adding, “When more than one person sits on a mountaintop, I’m creating community.” (The weekend bore this out, as groups decamped on Gulliver for hours at a stretch, not only posing for snapshots of themselves in Hashizume’s creation, but apparently conducting meetings of some importance.) She entices me to test out a mountaintop for comfort; I balk at this, yet unaccountably take a seat anyway. To my astonishment, it’s plusher than the ACAF leather sofas at the center of the pier. Hashizume pulls up to an adjacent mountaintop, and we converse.
Environmental concerns are foremost in her art. “If I lecture, no one will listen,” but if she invites patrons to play within these green landscapes, then her message, perhaps, sinks in. Legions of rust-colored little plastic figures that appear to be soldiers are advancing on the mounds. “They’re construction workers,” Hashizume tells me; their presence signifies constant building and the loss of green spaces. Surprised that I’m a journalist, she further hypnotizes me by saying, “You have a creative aura about you. You’re from Seattle? You talk nice and slow.”
From there, alas, we swing back to the department of Sheer Junk on the other side of the pier, where we find Yue Minjun’s The Color in Life. Minjun has an instantly recognizable style—he paints or carves his visage into everything. His satiric sculpture seen at SAAM summer before last, Garbage Dump, which featured the artist’s nude, life-size doppelgängers squatting on stacks of books, was genuinely arresting and provocative. In the several works Minjun had on display at ACAF, however, he hadn’t come up with anything fresh. What once felt daring now smacks of a one-trick-pony. Certainly, that’s the impression I had in circling about The Color in Life, a set of ten interlocking identical figures, seven and a half feet tall, of painted aluminum. Done in insipidly bright tones of yellow, gold, red, then purple, blues, and greens, the faces were featureless except for a wide gash (meant to be the ubiquitous Minjun grin). A silkscreen called Noah’s Ark, with eight Minjun clones as the only passengers on a sea of sky-blue squiggles, fell equally flat.
The artist could well have been a poster child for this event; casting a closer look, I saw that indeed he was. His Kung Fu lithograph, starring a trio of the usual Minjun look-alikes, clad in black tank tops and red jingle bell caps, serves as the official ACAF poster. Kung Fu pairs the trademark, insidiously jeering wide-open mouth with rows of meticulous tiny teeth and, for a dash of variety, skin hue scorched a dusky, cinnamon pink.
Vietnamese painter Tran Trong Vu’s 2008 canvas, We don’t know that the sky is not blue, might almost be a parody of Minjun. In it, three identical smiling young men (Vu’s likeness) in buttoned-up white uniforms and smiling mouths so red as to imply crimson lipstick, stand up to their chests in rosy blossoms of creamy pink and white flowers that are trickling down from the heavens, gradually burying the overjoyed workers in lush, fragrant petals. It’s Vu’s softness and humor, his lack of forceful insistence that trumps Minjun’s stale put-ons. If the better-known artist’s narcissistic sneers are like guns pointed in our ribs, then Vu’s political satire wafts in on the gentlest breeze.
There were two other intriguing painters from Vietnam. Ha manh Thang’s Highland Man, an immense, cerulean portrait of a man’s face, evokes not only Picasso’s blue period, but also the Francis Wolff photographs that defined 1960s Blue Note cover art. Although Thang’s subject has Asiatic features, he looks African-American, and he wears a humbled, melancholic expression, with heavy eyelids and furrowed brow, that seems to implicate a jazz way of being. As a final touch, Thang palette knifes jagged markings down the length of the canvas, as if to suggest rain or tears or the weather inside.
Still, the most thrilling of the newer Vietnamese artists might be Nguyen Bach Dan. Born in 1970, Nguyen works with ink on paper, and her style harks back to old-fashioned values in the best possible sense. Nature is her subject, one to which she applies rigorous discipline in the fineness of her shading and delicacy of brushwork—a rarity within the context of ACAF. When I first came across the Vietnamese Contemporary Fine Art booth after a half-hour or so of bombardment by “ironic” deference to Disney characters and by endlessly aggressive genuflections to the lowercase gods of pop art, my immediate, visceral reaction to Nguyen’s Autumn Path was, “Oh, my God, a real picture that’s actually about something!”
Nguyen Bach Dan, Forest at Dusk, 2008. Ink on paper. Photo by Jens Hager, courtesy of Vietnamese Contemporary Fine Art
A selection of three of her paintings, the first two from 2004, then a 2008 piece titled Forest at Dusk, demonstrated her deepening mastery of an ancient genre. She uses a variety of brushes to create dissimilar textural densities that nonetheless feel all of a piece with one another. In Forest at Dusk, calligraphic wisps of tree trunks shoot through serene, almost Pointillist renderings of foliage that bring to mind Seurat, yet Nguyen’s details have a slight expansiveness that lifts them away from and beyond Pointillism. She’s able to make us think we see the rapid changing of light as shadows lengthen. There’s even a musical sensibility to this unpopulated stroll through the woods—it’s as though you can hear the flutes of Debussy, if you listen closely enough to the intricate world Nguyen depicts. We’ll be lucky to view Forest at Dusk again in our lifetimes; a private collector from Memphis snapped up this treasure for an untold sum.
As I wandered the loop of makeshift gallery spaces at Pier 92, searching out what I’d missed and reeling from the more distasteful elements, such as the video of a hipster spitting out baby chicks, I chanced upon these words stenciled in small black letters on a wall in one corner: “don’t worry about the future, it isn’t here yet and now it’s gone.” The text, along with some fluffy white pillows piled on the floor below, turned out to be part of Iliko Zautashvili’s installation, Time Disappears in Time. But it could be an attitude that sums up the entire show. Or sums up everything I found repellent about the show.
Or so it seemed to me then.
The Asian Contemporary Art Fair took place in New York on November 7-10.