First take: at the beginning of each year, Artforum asks a group of seasoned critics and curators to introduce the work of up-and-comers they feel show special promise. The following pages feature their picks for 2006.
CAO FEI IS A KEY MEMBER of the vibrant new generation of Chinese artists emerging in the early twenty-first century, a time marked by widespread optimism similar to that which existed in the US in the 1950s and '60s. As curator Hou Hanru has remarked, most of them came of age in a world of electronic advertising and imported entertainment ranging from Taiwanese television to American rap. Although influenced in their embrace of a variety of media by Chinese artists in exile, such as Huang Young Ping in Paris or Cai-Guo Qiang in New York, the members of the younger generation have chosen to remain at home, where they have capitalized on the new availability and case of use of digital video technologies. Working outside the context of state-controlled TV and film, these figures (including Cao Fei, Yang Fudong, and Kan Xuan) have forged interdisciplinary and often collaborative projects to document and negotiate the new social realities of daily life.
Born in 1978 in Guangzhou, where she resides today, Cao Fei has developed an expansive oeuvre of theatrical performance, photography, writing, sound pieces, short film, and even a feature-length production. Indeed, the multiplicity of her practice recalls that of the young Robert Rauschenberg--a model of the artist as both an inventor and explorer who with infinite curiosity acts as a witness of his or her time. But a more apt comparison might be with Miranda July, who emerged simultaneously in Portland, Oregon. Like her, Cao Fei began writing plays in her teens, spurring what would become a complex, "postmedium" oscillation between different specialties. Both women espouse a DIY ethic and defy easy categorization, in contrast with the artists of the late 1980s and early '90s who tended to be identified with specific artistic milieus. What is particularly fascinating about their two practices is the tight relationship between spoken word, fixed scene, and moving image, recalling Jacques Ranciere's desire to "criticize the vision of artistic modernity, which would say that everybody is in their own place with their own medium and their own language."
Cao Fei uses Guangzhou as a nexus, or device, for organizing her interdisciplinary activities: With its dynamic structural changes, the city has acted as both a trigger and a backdrop for her work. In 2005, for example, she developed a new theater project for the second Guangzhou Triennale, a work she described as "a fluid drama" chronicling the ever-accelerating life on the Pearl River Delta. Her earlier video Oasis shows a man smiling at strangers amid the totally indifferent urban environment, while the more recent Hip Hop, 2003, captures construction workers and a policeman moving strangely to a steady rhythm (their awkwardness evoking the early days of MTV).
More synthetic in scope than these previous works, the eight-minute video COSPlayers, 2004, (along with a related series of photographs) is both critical and spectacular, using pop culture as a bridge rather than as a simple reference in the ubiquitous orgy of appropriation and revival. The title refers to the subculture of costume play in which young men and women dress as Japanese anime characters and behave as their chosen avatars. Cloaked in black capes and metallic suits and wielding menacing weapons, which are supposed to give them magical powers, Cao Fei's "COSplayers" chase each other across the fields outside Guangzhou and stalk anonymous urban spaces. Along the way, the camera takes in enormous construction sites and herds of livestock, in an attempt to grasp the marvelous and strange contrasts in the heart of the real city. Characterized by a temporal telescoping borrowed from the theater, the disjointed narrative is left suspended, and the film ends with the unlikely heroes returned to their homes, where, like ordinary teenagers, they eat and nap in the vicinity of their distracted parents. With COSPlayers, the fairy tale finds an ultracontemporary aesthetic in Cao Fei's experimental cinema, a world where anime flaneurs roam a fascinating and alienating environment of urban mutation.
Though rooted in daily life, Cao Fei's work evokes countless possibilities for social transformation. This sociopolitical edge is particularly evident in the Da Zha Lan Project, a research initiative undertaken by a loose collective of photographers, filmmakers, and other volunteers, co-organized by Cao Fei. Examining one of the poorest neighborhoods in Beijing, the group documents the evolving negotiations between traditional life and impending modernity in an area where the population density can reach a staggering forty-five thousand people per square kilometer. The project is part of a series of research and film works on the theme of Chinese urbanization and social organization, which originated with the San Yuan Li Project (shown in 2003 at the Venice Biennale) and which will culminate in 2006 with a new study in Shanghai. The group's efforts will be showcased in May at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, providing yet another window onto Cao Fei's protean shuttling among media--and on the complicated reciprocities between her documentary work and more fantastic modes.
HANS-ULRICH OBRIST IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
MARK GODFREY ON JANICE KERBEL
JANICE KERBEL'S WORK improbably melds dreamy, escapist longing with the meticulous research of a botanist or a rigorous master thief. By coupling these two modes of thought, she addresses questions of ecology, tourism, surveillance, and urbanism with an uncommon poetry, as in The Bird Island Project, 2000-2002. The work began with Kerbel fantasizing about a paradise where she could holiday but ended up as a precise representation of a fictitious yet geologically possible atoll in the Bahamas. Ready for tourist development, the island is inhabited by the Exuma Emerald, a bird that's utterly imaginary yet ecologically feasible--a point that Kerbel ensured by working with an ornithologist to determine how the bird might look and sound. Ultimately, the project came to comprise a promotional text, an Internet site, various drawings and maps, and a CD of the mysterious Exuma Emerald's calls.
More recently, Kerbel has deployed the medium of drawing exclusively, as in "Home Climate Gardens," 2003, a series that resulted from a residency at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia. There Kerbel designed indoor gardens for various spaces such as gyms, student apartments, and council flats, paying attention to their different environmental conditions (the gym, for example, would be very humid; the student apartments unheated for long spans of time). Each garden could be maintained easily by typical users of the space, and the various plants would not only thrive together but would also look fantastic. If, that is, they were ever planted.
The drawings deploy many different graphic codes: Plants are represented by circles of varying thickness; the function of the space is designated in a near-Bauhaus typeface; and the garden's location within each room is indicated by an inset architectural plan. Carefully juxtaposing contemporary and historical forms of notation, Kerbel shuns both the illustrational and doodling styles that have characterized drawing of the past ten years while also avoiding the gestural marks common to the medium in the late 1960s. But for all their intelligence and negation, Kerbel's drawings prompt us to picture lush gardens, albeit through images completely unlike traditional landscape sketches or still lifes of flowers.
Attending to the disjunctive character of their signs, the careful viewer discovers that the drawings are not--as one might first expect--proposals or halfway stages toward fully realized plans. Instead, they are objects with their own unique texture. This odd status is typical of Kerbel's exhibited works, which seem like schemes for future development but are in fact final results--outcomes that deny the possibility of further resolution and therefore keep us imagining what the works themselves refuse to picture.
Sometimes this ambiguous status is compounded by a peculiar kind of paradox: If the "proposal" were indeed realized, the fantasy would crumble in an instant. So in place of Lawrence Weiner's famous dictum that "the work need not be built," Kerbel insists that the work cannot be built. If, for instance, anyone were to develop Bird Island, the eco-environment Kerbel describes would be ruined. An even better example of this paradox is her ongoing series of "Home Fittings" drawings, begun in 2001, which start with the artist determining how to traverse a given space (such as the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris) without making any noise or casting any shadows. Kerbel then produces architectural plans of the spaces, on which a series of lines and dashes describe her undetectable route. Although these plans might seem to serve as exact instructions for would-be burglars, they would only yield the same silent and shadowless path for someone of Kerbel's exact height and weight, leaving us with a perfect description of an activity that's impossible to re-create. What seems to be a precise and objective document turns out actually to be a record of the contingencies of her body in a particular space.
Kerbel is presently busy with two new projects. A residency in Wyoming got her thinking about ghost towns and the night sky, and she has started designing a new town for ghosts, with buildings oriented to match the configurations of constellations of dead stars. Working as an urban planner might, she is taking into account the daily needs of the illusive denizens while also putting to use in her plans all the different cartographic signs found on town maps of the past fifty years: Her drawings of the towns thus become as indefinable and undatable as their spectral residents. Next up will be a garden for insomniacs, containing some of the hundreds of plant species that bloom in the moonlight. Yet what will see the light of day will be not a physical garden but another impossible proposal. As a related project sponsored by Artangel, Kerbel is writing a play whose characters are night flowers. I wouldn't be surprised if its eventual audience is kept awake at night, wondering how the actual plants might look.
MARK GODFREY IS A LECTURER AT THE SLADE SCHOOL OF FINE ART, UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON.
CHRISTIAN RATTEMEYER ON LISA TAN
TERMS OFTEN USED to describe interactions between lovers--tenderness, flirtatiousness, intimacy, longing, desire, even ecstasy--may also be aptly applied to the bonds between Lisa Tan and the subjects (and objects) of her artistic affections. Relationships are at the heart of this New York-based artist's practice. Some of Tan's works originate in encounters with other people, while others engage the artist's emotional connection to an idea or experience; all are conceptual, and many are aesthetically spare, even minimal, but they possess considerable elegance and style nonetheless. They encompass simple gestures, documentation, charts, and appropriations that, despite their visual economy, somehow never look overly "designed," thanks to the sincere, even romantic sensibilities they evince. At the same time, by combining an acute sense of respect and generosity with an analytical interest in what might be termed the formal characteristics of feelings--the "weight" of appreciation, for example, or the temporal dimensions of desire--Tan manages to situate her emotional connection with her subjects at the center of her practice while avoiding the diaristic, the sentimental, and the naive. If relational aesthetics is about the sociology of human interactions, then Tan's aesthetics of relationships is about the economy of human intimacy, a romantic conceptualism grounded in the investigation of emotional drives.
Representative of Tan's approach is the sculptural work Ellsworth Kelly, 2004, which she produced after the titular artist invited her to join him and two friends for dinner at a restaurant in Venice, California. She thanked Kelly by sending him a set of ninety engraved calling cards, retaining ten for herself. The sculpture derived from this gesture consists of a black lacquered wooden plinth that supports a single card, displayed in a clear acrylic case. Enshrining and literally elevating the card and the name it bears, the work transforms the encounter between the two artists into both an homage and a contemplation of the anxiety of influence, formalizing their fleeting intimacy as well as the inevitable resumption of the distance between them. In A Kiss for Fredrik Nilsen and His Documentation of That Kiss (With Subsequent Generations), 2005, Tan turns her attention to another aspect of her life as an artist, foregrounding her flirtatious relationship with the photographer who documents her work. She had Nilsen take a picture of a lipstick kiss on red paper and then had the resulting picture rephotographed for two more "generations," until the image became too faint to see.
But Tan's inquiries extend beyond the realm of her profession. For her ongoing series "Letters from Dr. Bamberger," 2002-, for instance, Tan frames the letters she and her successive partners receive after their annual examinations by her doctor, thus highlighting her concern for the well-being of herself and her lovers. In other works, she maps journeys both real and imaginary, focusing not on her relationships with others but on solitary longing and desires. For The Garden of Earthly Delights, 2004, she planned a single trip to see almost every work by Hieronymus Bosch on public display anywhere in the world. Originating in London and concluding in New York, the meticulous intercontinental itinerary comprises 124 days of travel. The work takes the form of an eight-foot-long white-on-black chart; the trip itself, never consummated, remains an unfulfilled possibility--and is perhaps all the more satisfying for that. For "Seven Year Itch--The Touring Club Italiano Rubbings," 2004-, Tan, then in her seventh year as a Los Angeles resident, gained access privileges to the Getty Research Institute. There, she spent nights imagining global escapades with the help of the library's extensive collection of travel books, giving form to her obsession by making rubbings of the covers of a set of Touring Club Italiano guides. And in an ongoing series provisionally titled "One Night Stand," 2005-, Tan delivers on the potential of the previous work by traveling to select foreign cities for one night and returning home the next morning, documenting this voluntary self-displacement only in writing. While her texts remain strictly concerned with surface description, Tan seeks rare moments of spatiotemporal collapse--those confluences of jet lag, solitude, and the comfort of an environment at once totally foreign and strangely embracing--that constitute a kind of waking dream state and that she terms "petit morts," in a deliberate evocation of the French expression for sexual climax.
In her most recent work, Untitled (Broken Baccarat), 2005, Tan thwarts the expectation of "appropriate" behavior in response to an act of gift-giving: After receiving a Baccarat crystal objet as a present, she attempted to break it by throwing it out the window of her second-story apartment. When it merely sustained minor fractures, she photographed it, only to discover that its complex refractions could not be adequately rendered on film. Seemingly indestructible yet unrepresentable, the glass knickknack becomes a stand-in for the initial act of kindness, which, although invisible, is nonetheless "present." The oeuvres of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Bas Jan Ader (whose increasing influence bespeaks a kind of romantic turn in the historiography of Conceptualism) are clear precedents for Tan's practice, even as she stakes out her own territory with the compelling and formally canny approach embodied in works like Untitled (Broken Baccarat). Her work introduces a timely sense of personal emotional investment at a moment when sentiment is being rediscovered in the histories of Conceptual art.
CHRISTIAN RATTEMEYER IS THE CURATOR OF ARTISTS SPACE IN NEW YORK. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
JESSICA MORGAN ON GEOFFREY FARMER
IT WOULD BE FAIRLY EASY to eat up my allotted space here just describing the various sources of information contained in a typical work by Geoffrey Farmer. Literary, pop-cultural, and art-historical allusions; site-specific details; and gestures to his native Vancouver's local industries and art scene form the structural edifice around which his sculptural and installation-based works develop. Posing a similar challenge to my descriptive faculties is the constantly shifting status of the works-in-process that Farmer generally exhibits, from projects that evolve and grow over weeks, even while they are on view, to finished works that can be installed in multiple arrangements. Such a lengthy effort might be misguided regardless, since Farmer employs these layers of meaning in such a way that the sum of the parts in no way describes the works themselves, which, while they benefit from these various associations, critically address artmaking, exhibiting, and context while embodying a striking and complex formal structure.
Farmer's references generally coalesce around certain ideas of staging or artifice. Some of his works evoke the film industry--its props and illusionism and pervasive presence in Vancouver, which is a kind of prop itself, often used by studios as a cheap stand-in for Los Angeles--or allude to literary sources, from Dickens to Nabokov. But his preoccupation with the theatrical and the staged is also apparent in his use of self-disguise (the presence of doppelgangers or personal proxies) and, not least, in the performative, real-time staging of change and evolution that his works so often involve.
Take, for example, Farmer's Hunchback Kit, 2000, an accumulation of objects, or "props," for use in "conceptual adaptations," as the artist terms them, of Victor Hugo's epic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Placed inside a tall container that opens like a book, the kit includes various objects (a monk's robe, a pair of cardboard shoes for someone with a clubfoot) and a manual that guides the reader through the various ways in which the work might be installed. As the manual makes clear, the work allows for a degree of freedom in assembly: The objects inside can be displayed and presented--that is, staged--in radically different ways with each presentation. This sculptural kit, of course, calls into question the nature of the static, contained object and the role of curator and context in the presentation and meaning of the work, while also testing an institutional desire for ease and convenience in the display of objects.
Two of the artist's most ambitious exhibitions, both at his Vancouver gallery, Catriona Jeffries, expanded on these ideas. In the first, he presented Catriona Jeffries Catriona, 2001, a complex installation of drawings, videos, and performance residue that, per the play on names in the title, suggested that his gallerist had become his double and/or vice versa. A series of "exhibitions within exhibitions" took place during the show; one, "(Her)story," was an experiment in "trying out" feminist performance and process work from the '70s. Working in the gallery space, "Jeffries" reperformed (generally after hours, though these semisecret events were presented in video form when the gallery was open) body-art actions and the like, trying on for size the personal, political, and confessional aspects of this currently unfashionable side of '70s art while keeping his act just the right side of irony. Farmer's appropriation, often performed in a black wig mimicking, presumably, the raven-haired gallerist whose persona he mixed with his own, was by no means purely tongue-in-cheek. His craft-oriented attention to making and display could, after all, be said to owe a debt to the typically female artists exploring these genres and to the socially invested political aspirations of their work.
In another show at Catriona Jeffries, Farmer exhibited Every Surface in Some Way Decorated, Altered, or Changed Forever (Except the Float), 2004, a sprawling work that developed over a period of seven weeks at the gallery. Taking as the work's literal and theoretical base the sociosculptural form of the parade float, Farmer created a wooden structure that rose to a height exceeding the ceiling, protruding through a large hole in the roof. He decorated the gallery with homemade-looking masks, costumes, banners, and street posters, adding new material each day and eventually filling the space to the point where navigation was impossible and the "float" was totally obscured. Reminiscent as it was of both celebratory parades and campaign sloganeering, the work hovered ambiguously between politics and parody while drawing directly, as the title implied, on Robert Morris's seminal 1969 process work Continuous Project Altered Daily. To immerse oneself in the background detail of Farmer's art, an easy thing to do, is perhaps to get lost in a forest of signs and to miss the overall structural or conceptual gist of the work. The float was in essence a dynamic stage on which Farmer developed his ongoing and increasingly astute investigation of sculpture in its expanded form.
Farmer's recent installation at the Power Plant in Toronto, A Pale Fire Freedom Machine, 2005, makes fully apparent the theoretical rigor underlying his aesthetic of accumulation. In this particular manifestation, the work was in essence a vast processing machine for discarded furniture that was cleaned, organized, and ultimately set alight--using an old poster found on one of the desks as tinder--in a fireplace designed by Dominique Imbert. The resulting soot was used to make ink, which in turn was used to print more posters. As usual, the references (to Nabokov, French artist Xavier Veilhan, academic-turned-sculptor Imbert, etc.) are layered, but one in particular is revealing of Farmer's conceptual underpinnings: Martin Kippenberger's 1994 masterpiece The Happy Ending of Franz Kafka's "Amerika." The late artist's tendency to comment on, critique, and incorporate the work of others while simultaneously generating new ideas sets the strongest precedent for Farmer's production of complex systems that combine numerous intertextual references while establishing a voice that is unmistakably the artist's own.
JESSICA MORGAN IS A CURATOR AT TATE MODERN, LONDON.
DENNIS COOPER ON RYAN TRECARTIN
WHEN THE CHOICE BETWEEN lingering in front of a video projector or hitting a half-dozen other galleries is increasingly a cinch, the jolting energy, nerve, and intricacy of twenty-four-year-old Ryan Trecartin's work in the medium comes as no small shock. An abiding interest in indie rock, goth, psychedelia, and other hot topics won't distinguish his practice from that of other artists of his generation. But everything aesthetic about his videos--from the baroque screenplays that polish flippant teen slang into cascading soliloquies to the dueling fascinations with profound loneliness and extremely affected behavior to the swarming, jumbled, yet precisely composed shots that pack each frame to the rafters with visual stimuli--displays a near obliviousness to what's going on in his field, whether it be the cliches of current video art or the signature styles of past experimental films. Trecartin does, however, share a penchant for full-frontal gayness and a love of extravagance with the movie directors his work most immediately brings to mind: Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and early John Waters.
Trecartin was "discovered" last spring when a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art showed visiting artist Sue De Beer a few minutes of a crazy video he'd found on the dating/networking website www.friendster.com. Upon her return to New York, De Beer told writer and former New Museum curator Rachel Greene about her find. With only the artist's first name to go on, together they searched Friendster's database until they found Trecartin's profile, then wrote to ask if he would send them a copy of the video in its entirety--a forty-one-minute work titled A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004. Floored by what she saw, Greene began showing the piece to enthusiastic artists, curators, and gallerists. Several months and much buzz later, Trecartin's first solo show opens in January at Los Angeles gallery QED; the J. Paul Getty Museum, an institution not exactly known for supporting young, unproven artists, has commissioned a new work that will be exhibited this spring; and AFFE, the video that started it all, will be in this year's Whitney Biennial.
All of these Pecker-like details aside, Trecartin is not your classic recontextualized outsider. Raised in rural Ohio. He designed costumes and stage sets in high school before picking up his first camera at the Rhode Island School of Design. While there, he made a number of short films, including Yo, A Romantic Comedy, 2002, a messy, hypergay exercise in genre, and the heartfelt, bratty Valentines Day Girl, 2001, and helped form a multidisciplinary art collective called Experimental People. After graduating in 2004, he moved to New Orleans with the group, whose members were among the huge cast appearing in AFFE. Then Hurricane Katrina destroyed Trecartin's elaborately painted, decorated home (featured prominently in the video) and with it virtually all of the nondigital artwork he'd ever made. Following a period of drifting and home-lessness, Trecartin now lives and makes art in Los Angeles, thanks to the support of an admiring collector.
If A Family Finds Entertainment can be reduced to a thumbnail description, this might be it: Trecartin stars as Skippy, a clownish but terrifyingly psychopathic boy who has locked himself in the upstairs bathroom of his family home during a wild party. Ignoring his siblings' and friends' pleas that he come out, he paces the little room, cutting himself with a knife and musing opaquely on his existential dilemma in a kind of King Lear-style delirium. Downstairs, the partyers are experiencing wild mood swings and having complex, disassociated conversations (mostly about him) that are constantly interrupted by bursts of visual effects and animated sequences that disorient the cast of characters like so many lightning strikes. Eventually Skippy emerges, borrows money from his creepy, sexually inappropriate parents, and heads outdoors, where he runs into a documentary filmmaker who decides to make a movie about him--but then Skippy is immediately hit by a car and, apparently, killed. Back inside the house, a hyperactive girl named Shin, also played by Trecartin, gets a call on her cell phone with the bad news. She spends twenty or so hysteria-filled minutes trying to focus and construct a sentence linear enough to tell her friends what has happened. When she finally does, a band plays music that seems to magically raise the young man from the dead, and everyone runs outside and sets off fireworks. Then everyone runs back inside before the police show up.
A wonder of Trecartin's videos is that his approach seems as intuitive and driven by a mad scientist-style tunnel vision as it is rigorous and sophisticated, grounded in his expert editing and inordinate gift for constructing complex avant-garde narratives. For this reason, his movies resist the kind of deconstructive analysis through which one normally manages to strip new, challenging art down to its nuts and bolts. It's early yet, but the great excitement of Trecartin's work is that it honestly does seem to have come from out of nowhere.
DENNIS COOPER IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
DANIEL BIRNBAUM ON PEYMAN RAHIMI
MONSTERS TEND TO BE little more than imaginative amalgamations of real beings, as one realizes when reading, say, Gustave Flaubert's Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which the author enumerates a litany of classical monsters (including the minotaur, a combination of man and bull, and the centaur, man and horse) and then concocts a few new ones still lacking names. In principle, such a mythological zoo would be infinitely rich in its juxtapositions and aggregations. But as Jorge Luis Borges points out in The Book of Imaginary Beings--even while digging deep into the annals of classical and Oriental literature himself--the zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of reality. Perhaps that explains why Peyman Rahimi, a young Iranian artist, has taken as his main subject the fantastic garden inhabited by creatures that, for all their odd, extraordinarily colorful, and overly ornamental patterns and textures of skin and fur, are almost immediately recognizable as snakes, birds, or wildcats. Without being given a chance to resist, we are dragged into a world of parodic exoticism in which, strangely enough, we immediately feel at home--a world whose visual language, it turns out, provides an allegory for the elision of such dichotomies as Western and Eastern, traditional and contemporary.
Born in 1977 in Tehran to a family that he describes as very Western in its lifestyle, Rahimi started as an artist with symmetric compositions inspired by the carpets of his native country and the ornate style of its architecture, until he moved on to installations that, at least to Western eyes, seem to reference the mosque. Often involving a fountain at the center of a balanced and harmonious space, these works hardly ever left the artist's studio and thus remained sites for private meditation. Rahimi eventually relocated to Frankfurt, at the age of twenty, to study painting with Christa Naher, first lady of the German neobaroque. His first gallery shows, all within the past few years in Frankfurt and Cologne, featured large and extravagant works on paper in which spectacular animals are far less symmetrically positioned: The gardens these birds, snakes, and large cats inhabit become spatially perplexing, marked by complicated geometries through which the beasts tumble--a Garden of Eden suffused with action.
Today Rahimi sees himself as a painter in the broadest sense: He frequently employs silk-screen techniques to construct his fabulist scenes and regularly samples visuals from both the mass media and from other artists' work in order to produce his large prints on textiles and paper. Indeed, an untitled piece from 2004 directly references Naher's work, the iconograpic and tonal affinity between the artists evident in their predilections for animals and skulls as allegorical signifiers, ruminations on life and death. In other pieces, this symbolism is well hidden; one has to look closely for the skulls, for instance, to spring forth. Such intricate compositions may indeed bear Naher's neo-baroque influence, but here decadence is Rahimi's point of reference. Not surprisingly, his favcrite city is Rome, where he collects curious visual material on long strolls. A skull from the gate of a Roman graveyard is depicted in a number of ornamental works, some of which look as if they could be a thousand years old--and yet, given the screenprinting medium, I would insist that at least some of Rahimi's works could be called descendents of Pop. An untitled artist's book from 2003 shows his intense interest in media coverage of Tehran and in the political developments there since the 1979 revolution: Images of mass hysteria, destroyed monuments, and religious symbols confront signs of radical modernity, such as veiled women with machine guns--all of it culled from newspapers, manipulated and cut into fragments to seem at once ancient and utterly contemporary. What would be a decadent's dream of the cruel beauty of distant revolutions here suggests that a Pop sensibility may yet be political today.
The first time I noticed Rahimi's art was on an invitation card announcing a 2004 exhibition in Frankfurt. It showed a young, glamorous couple in a modern-looking garden. The man was Rahimi himself (his face Photoshopped in). An elegant leopard lay before him--just another member of the family. This is how I imagine the lives of Tehran's in-crowd during the '70s, but in truth these people look so chic, it's a provocation. Consider the invitation in light of Rahimi's Frankfurter Kunstverein show in 2001, where he screenprinted a flag displaying an Arabic text distorted to the point of illegibility. The flag will seem at first totally decorative to audiences regardless of background--but research reveals the language to be that of Goethe citing the Koran's Arabic script in his West-Eastern Divan. Western and Eastern iconographies are short-circuited, producing a cosmos that is inviting but difficult to navigate. Finally, we are made to realize that the Middle Eastern exotica the artist repeatedly displays invite our projections only to throw them back on us: Rahimi uses the strongest cultural cliches to produce an aesthetic universe that forces us beyond them.
DANIEL BIRNBAUM IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
DEBRA SINGER ON TAMY BEN-TOR
PERHAPS THE ONLY THING that exceeds the hysteria within Tamy Ben-Tor's performances and videos is the degree of hysteria about them. Although she has lived in New York City only for a year and half, having moved here to attend Columbia University's MFA program, Ben-Tor has already enchanted the city's art audiences with a series of short performances and performance-based videos that exude a distinctive, meaningful lunacy and reflect a sensibility located somewhere between art-world touchstone Cindy Sherman and the distant shoals of Ali G.
The foundation for the artist's live and recorded work alike is an ever-expanding catalogue of eccentric characters who rant about a world plagued by xenophobia, bigotry, violence, self-absorption, and greed--characteristics they often paradoxically both criticize and embody. Throughout, the thirty-year-old artist morphs effortlessly from one sharply drawn persona to the next with the simplest changes of clothing, accessories, and impeccably realized accents, revealing the finely honed theatrical skills she developed at the School of Visual Theater in her hometown of Jerusalem. Women Talk About Adolf Hitler, 2004, for example, is a video featuring a series of women, played by Ben-Tor, who each address the camera, usually to deliver an absurd diatribe about der Fuhrer. First, we encounter a madcap New York-Jewish gender-studies writer blathering about Adolf's little-known personal travails--his struggles with his poor digestive system, his hatred of dentists, his embarrassing-looking knees. From there we meet, among others, a French coquette who giggles flirtatiously about that cute little mustache; a southern Christian fundamentalist who thinks we should disregard the past and worry about contemporary "evil"; and an Eastern European pharmacist who whines disaffectedly about how no one ever told her about the Holocaust.
In a related vein, Ben-Tor's latest work, Girls Beware, 2005, presents a quintet of new portraits. The video begins with a gyrating woman singing in Arabic in front of a simulated Times Square-like streetscape while an English translation of the lyrics flashes on the screen, warning young girls to beware of Arab men who might try to seduce them. In the next scene a Russian prostitute listlessly recites in Hebrew every Arab slur she can conjure. Next, an "academic" offers her theory about "the penetration of the foreign man" and "the white man's obsession with the darker man." From there, we jump-cut to a bearded guy in dark sunglasses rattling off lascivious sweet nothings, as if to charm a young girl. Right on cue, a young girl (albeit one in a pig-face mask) appears, dancing insanely in front of the camera.
As these descriptions suggest, Ben-Tor's characters are grotesque amalgamations culled from her incisive observations of people she encounters. Emerging out of extracted snippets of cultural difference distended to bizarre extremes, her humorous portrayals skewer conservatives and liberals alike by uprooting familiar moral anchors of right and wrong, good and evil, with illogical explanations and nonsensical commentaries. These seething medleys recall, in certain respects, the one-woman shows of such performance artists as Dael Orlandersmith, Sarah Jones, or even early Lily Tomlin--all known for work featuring their swift, intricate character transformations. However, Ben-Tor has thus far chosen to refute extended character treatments and does not develop analogous, rewarding theatrical journeys. Instead, she favors fragments and interruptions more familiar to television skit comedies designed for an aware but also aloof ADD generation. Her mixing and matching of art, television, and theatrical styles is perhaps not coincidental. In one breath, Ben-Tor cites as influences Woody Allen, Paul McCarthy, and the playwright Richard Maxwell.
Her cavalcade continues in her live performances, such as Exotica, the Rat, and the Liberal, 2005. This continually evolving piece begins with the appearance of a grand dame who, decked out in a fur-trimmed gold lame coat, rhapsodizes pompously in English and German about India, Marrakech, and other "exotic" locales. Next up is "the Rat," a crazed Nazi-youth type, who beats a pair of tambourines while issuing a tirade about the loathsomeness of cappuccino-swilling American liberals. Then, in comes the liberal, who in various versions of the piece has taken different forms, but who is always wan and passive, and often prone to wishy-washy statements like "Let's agree to disagree."
Throughout her work, Ben-Tor destroys, parodies, and distorts conventional speech, intermixing Arabic, Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English, ensuring that, for most viewers, significant sections come off as highly charged gobbledygook. Nevertheless, her work is as much about what you hear as what you see. Language becomes an unreliable tool that fails to communicate, causing tension and misunderstanding. For Ben-Tor, both identity and difference have linguistic origins, whereby language is the primary marker against which we perceive something to be foreign, alien, or exotic. In this respect her work recalls the mid-twentieth-century Theater of the Absurd and its startling attack on rational thought and conventional dramatic structure, which reflected a profound distrust of language's ability to convey meaning. In Ben-Tor's art, similar subversive attacks and futile efforts are at play as she tries, in her words, "to embody the position of saying the wrong thing in order to communicate a certain truth." Her Sisyphean characters, however, perpetually fail, stranded as they are in the "domain of idiocy," as she calls it. But it is in precisely this domain that the universe expands in exhilarating ways. Liberated from logic, it turns out, nonsense offers us new possibilities for comprehension.
DEBRA SINGER IS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND CHIEF CURATOR OF THE KITCHEN IN NEW YORK. (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
RACHEL KUSHNER ON OLIVIA BOOTH
"IT IS NO COINCIDENCE," Walter Benjamin wrote in 1933, "that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed." No coincidence, in other words, that cold and sober glass features prominently in the programmatic austerity of Loos and Le Corbusier. Glass in place of walls, Benjamin felt, offered a new, "good" sort of poverty. Traceless and transparent, the enemy of secrets and possessions, glass enacted modernism's liberation from the plush, festooned decor of bourgeois Victorian interiors. But something can, of course, be fixed to this hard, smooth material: paint.
For Los Angeles-based artist Olivia Booth, who paints on large rectangular sheets of glass, the stark transparency that Benjamin extolled precisely for its unmarkability becomes an exquisite provocation as a surface for abstract marks. For starters, glass, unlike canvas, is not a ground but an indeterminate suspension--in effect, a groundlessness--in which both illusionistic depth and its obverse, formalist flatness, are impossibilities. And glass has none of the forgiving absorption of canvas. Color won't saturate or layer, and brushstroke, defined as much by paint consistency, surface treatment, and texture as it is by brush and stroke, is reduced to the unruly vicissitudes of paint alone, forced to push against its own limitations as it contacts slippery, obdurate glass.
Interested in the intersection of real and imagined space, Booth began experimenting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California (where she earned her MFA in 2003), with combinations of translucent materials such as Saran wrap, clear rubber, and plastic sheeting. But as the resulting forms crept into the territory of installation, she realized that glass could serve to reify the unseen and yet remain subordinated to paint, even as it presented a rabbit hole of formal challenges. Her paintings on glass first garnered attention in 2004 in a group show at Marc Foxx, and her first solo exhibition, a new body of all-glass work, goes on view later this month at Mandarin Gallery in LA's Chinatown.
Although obscuring the transparency of glass is a rebuke to its most salient property--think of Kandinsky, in want of privacy, whitewashing the glassed-in lobby of his Walter Gropius duplex in Dessau--Booth's nuanced process scrims more than it obscures. In order to work with, rather than against, the optical effects of transparency, she has largely traded color for a re-keyed spectrum of clear acrylic glazes, a system of modulated contrasts in thickness and finish, from matte to ultraglossy tars, gels, and bases that she whips into aerated emulsions. In Neglect, 2004, bubbles pattern the clear glaze with floating cells of captured light. Booth occasionally cellophanes her acrylics with pigment to get diaphanous shades, like the chrysolite green in Feather Piece, 2005, which is the same hue, just a shade darker, as the naturally green tint of her glass support. If Morris Louis's thin veils of poured paint conflated surface and support, so, too, do Booth's translucent acrylics, despite the utter impermeability of her chosen surface: Painted on both front and reverse sides (the latter registering on the recto as a mirror image), her plasmic textures look almost like glass itself, but as if distilled and denatured to various states of liquidity in which light pools and glimmers. Booth also uses opaque white or pinkish paints, but in sparing blots that manage to accentuate the translucence they negate. In Untitled, 2004-2005, thick paint scraped along the right side of the piece emphasizes not only the transparent materiality of the glass but its edge as tangible and sharp, something on which to clean a palette knife.
If the curtain-glass of Bauhaus architecture effaced distinctions between wall and window, Booth's panes of painted glass, neither wall nor window, exhibit the properties of both: Light refracts through the painted glass, projecting intricate, Constructivist-like patterns on nearby walls. Here, chiaroscuro isn't a painterly illusion but an actuality: Volumes of light and lacy silhouettes of shadow shift with the angle of illumination. Most of Booth's glass sheets lean against walls--their bottom edges resting either on the floor or on low, wooden platforms--and triangulate into sculptural objects, even if the space they describe, between glass surface and wall shadow, is discreet and inaccessible. Those works that do hang on the wall seem not so much paintings as fragile, encased objects. This blurring of two and three dimensions recalls the fringes of Minimalism, evoking works by Eva Hesse, Robert Irwin, and, more directly, the steel-and-glass sculptures of the late Christopher Wilmarth (to whom one of Booth's pieces is dedicated). Despite the fact that various grad school faculty and a handful of curators and gallerists said in the past that she would "have to choose" between painting and sculpture, her works successfully maintain a paradoxical suspension between image and object. In each piece, what's most legibly flat is the shadow projected on the wall behind the glass--which itself is two-dimensional and yet, by angling from wall to floor, creates a field of presence in the shared space with the viewer. Perceptual unity, the at-onceness some saw in Minimalism, is still possible, but in a glinting, provisional slippage of orientations: softly obstructed front and reverse surfaces separated by thin glass and then combined and redoubled as patterned silhouettes. Without the integration of color and opaque ground, we're forced to construct coherence from layers of glass, glaze, and mottled light--none of which can hold the eye but only slow it down. Booth's transparency isn't clarity, or even false clarity, but viscous puddles of see-through nothingness. In other words, reality itself.
RACHEL KUSHNER IS A WRITER BASED IN LOS ANGELES.
MARK SLADEN ON TUE GREENFORT
LATE AT NIGHT, in an industrial wasteland on the edge of town, a camera is rigged with a trip wire attached to a sausage. Unsuspecting foxes, lured to the site by the smell of the tasty wurst, snag the bait and trigger the camera. The creatures, caught in the camera's flash, look a little surprised in the resulting photographs. But clearly the foxes are not to be underestimated, as by the end of a week they have learned to take the sausage without being caught on film.
A group of eight images titled DaimlerstraBe 38, these autoportraits were instigated in 2001 by Danish artist Tue Greenfort while he was still a student of Thomas Bayrle at the Stadelschule in Frankfurt. Such a work could easily become a little cute--art involving animals does seem to invite that kind of reading--but it is also based on a beautiful conceit that invokes a whole history of photographic portraiture. The trip wire that extends out of the picture frame could be compared, for instance, to the cable release that is featured in some of Cindy Sherman's self-portraits, while the flashgun aesthetic invokes Philip-Lorca diCorcia, not to mention a whole history of paparazzi snaps.
Greenfort has often appropriated existing artworks and representational formats, and animals have appeared in other of his works employing this strategy. In Partitur einer Fliege (A Fly's Composition), 2004, a series of photographs reveal an insect gradually creating tracks in the condensation on a windowpane. The work was inspired by the ideas of early twentieth-century biologist Jakob von Uexkull, who developed theories related to the interaction of individual organisms within larger groups, or "compositions," but it also suggests other sources, including Hans Namuth's famous action shots of Jackson Pollock at work. Greenfort's appropriations conform to the ecological concerns that pervade his practice: He appears to simply see cultural history as so much material for recycling.
There are other works by Greenfort in which animals appear as stand-ins for human subjects. For the installation Social Organism, shown at the Technical University in Istanbul in 2001, he led ants from a garden into the exhibition space, using a string bridge that guided them to a table laden with a variety of sweet foods. The work's title suggests that the piece can be read as a metaphor for human society, and the presence of magnifying glasses for use by viewers might imply a dystopic twist--bringing to mind a cruel childhood pastime. Looking again at DaimlerstraBe 38, we could argue, similarly, that the foxes are metaphors for human subjects in consumer culture, caught in a loop in which consumption and identity are conflated.
In all of these works Greenfort demonstrates that he is less interested in animals per se than in an expanded notion of ecology, one that encompasses cultural history and sociopolitics as well as natural resources. It is also apparent that he plays with notions of ecology at the level of the site, appropriating strategies from site-specific art. To make the fox portraits, for instance, the artist created a shelter for his camera out of materials found nearby. Greenfort often makes use of resources that derive from and draw attention to his immediate environment, gently pushing viewers toward a more reflexive understanding of the world around them.
The artist's interest in ecology becomes even more apparent in works that do not contain such obvious natural references. An example of this is BONAQUA Kondensationswurfel (BONAQUA Condensation Cube), 2005, which references Hans Haacke's Condensation Cube, 1963-65. As in Haacke's work, a clear box is partially filled with water, creating a sealed environment that evaporates or condenses as the room temperature changes. However, Greenfort's box is filled with BonAqua, a branded drinking water marketed by Coca-Cola, thereby opening up Haacke's closed system to issues such as the privatization of public resources.
Greenfort, who is currently developing a work for the Arts & Ecology project (a program organized by the Royal Society of Arts in London), is not the only contemporary Nordic artist to address environmental themes. Olafur Eliasson, for instance, looks at the enculturation of nature through the lens of the sublime, while Henrik Hakansson's studies of birds and other animals adopt models from laboratory science and fieldwork. Greenfort's practice is distinct from both of theirs, however, in its more integrated approach. "I don't observe nature as an external phenomenon," he recently stated, "but play and interact within a space--call it a habitat or a certain environment--where other organisms are present besides me."
Greenfort's art evokes a world in which animals, humans, nature, culture, science, and industry, as well as the artwork and its site, are connected by a web of relationships. In Les trois ecologies (Editions Galilee, 1989), Felix Guattari proposes an expanded version of ecology involving three different registers--the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity--and argues that in order to understand the interactions between them we will need to cut across such categories and think "transversally." It is just such a complex and contradictory notion of ecology that Greenfort adopts, and it is one befitting our times--in which foxes are our urban neighbors, and water is not as transparent as it seems.
MARK SLADEN IS SENIOR CURATOR AT THE BARBICAN IN LONDON.
DAVID RIMANELLI ON HANNA LIDEN
The photography of Swedish-born, New York-based artist Hanna Liden delivers a cunning referential amalgam that comprises Northern European Romantic painting and art cinema, heavy metal and Hollywood horror. In her work, folkloric antiquity, modern life, and the shimmer of postapocalyptic fantasy exist in a state of delicately sustained equipoise. Her images evoke a mythic past, but one that has been disinterred from the graveyard of timelessness; the figures populating her desolate and gorgeous landscapes belong, finally, to the present. In Death Gate, 2003, two denim-clad men wearing skull masks--Liden's characters always wear masks, sometimes store-bought, sometimes of her own making--perch on giant piles of bulldozed limestone that form the "gate" to the argentine, luminous hell-waters behind them. The men, whose calculatedly grubby attire suggests an attunement to global youth culture, may represent chthonic sentries but might just as well be a pair of typical disaffected teenagers getting high in the woods, listening to death metal and "having fun." As the foregoing suggests, Liden's work could be understood in the context of the goth(ic) trend that surfaced a few years ago. But her practice (like those of Cameron Jamie, Banks Violette, and Aida Ruilova, among others) transcends that perishable label via a keen and self-ironic intelligence that underpins the creepy hocus-pocus. Liden further distinguishes herself through sheer technique (eschewing digital manipulation, she relies on old-fashioned photographic chops) and an unerring sense of composition.
The latter may derive, in part, from the fact that she has apprised herself of her aesthetic's art-historical, and in particular, painterly, provenance. While the landscape in Death Gate is recognizably man-made--it's a limestone quarry--the picture clearly descends from the kind of sublime Romantic vista perfected by Caspar David Friedrich, who influenced nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Scandinavian painters including Christen Kobke, Vilhelm Hammershoi, Eugene Fredrik Jansson, and Edvard Munch. The composition recalls Friedrich's watercolor Hollow in the Shore Looking to the Sea, ca. 1824, the U-shaped limestone outcropping in Liden's picture precisely echoing the "hollow" in Friedrich's. In Black Flag Burner, 2004, Liden depicts a shrouded figure standing on a rock just off an ashen shore, facing away from the viewer and, per the title, bearing aloft a burning black flag. The coastline is strikingly bereft of vegetation, as if transformed for ambiguous purposes of "development"--another human intervention in the fugitive, once-virgin landscape. Given the Swedish context, the allusion to the character Death in Ingmar Bergman's 1957 art-house classic The Seventh Seal is plain. As overdetermined as it is in its almost comic lugubriousness, the image retains a certain Friedrichian sublimity (mediated here by the reference to Island of the Dead, 1880, by Arnold Bocklin, himself a follower of the German master).
But I keep wondering what would happen if Liden's grim reaper were to turn outward, toward the viewer. I imagine the figure wearing a Scream mask, the bleak lyricism of Bergman's film traduced by a horror movie that is pure Hollywood product, at once blithely self-referential and the progenitor of myriad parodic spinoffs. When I suggested this to Liden, she commented, "Trashy American popular culture actually sparked my interest in Scandinavian paganism. The last Scream would be a beautiful reference." Her turn on my suggestion is telling: While the first entry in the series is actually quite good, the second, following the predictable trajectory of sequels, is markedly less so, and the final installment is a mess. Liden selects the worst film in the trilogy as "a beautiful reference," advocating third-generation trash--the trashiest--as perfectly suitable material for inspiration and commentary. Here her sensibility intersects John Waters's: Isn't Pink Flamingos, in the sick-minded horror of its peripeteias and catharses, a truly sublime film?
In the spirit of Waters's most preposterous burlesques (e.g., Desperate Living's papier-mache Mortville), Liden's props stridently announce their status as props. Even those she fashions herself rather than buys from the nearest dollar store evince a self-conscious "dumbness." See, for instance, her picture of a naked tyke wearing a toothy zombie mask (Untitled, 2005)--Edward Weston meets Wes Craven? In Black Sabbath, 2003, a path in the snow leads down to a pentagram made of rope, smoldering as if recently set alight. A case of diabolist hijinks or an homage to the British heavy-metal band? Maybe some goth chicks were "calling the Spirit" the night before, just as Neve Campbell (star of the Scream movies) and her girlfriends did in The Craft. The devil's circle glows with a few embers--which I at first took for Christmas lights. Photographic verisimilitude never quite recuperates these gestures; they remain obstinately "art." I'm reminded of Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face, in which a hideously deformed (but chic) young woman wears a vacant pretty-girl mask throughout. A description of the plot would yield a litany of generic horror-flick tropes, and yet the film itself is one of the most genuinely haunting and poetic ever made. In like manner, Liden's trash sublime refigures the art of her Scandinavian forebears, retrofitting it, necromantically resuscitating Munch's ill-fated Scream for, as the artist would have, the era of Scream 3.
DAVID RIMANELLI IS A CONTRIBUTING EDITOR OF ARTFORUM.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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