Quick Take: Habibi at MoMA

On a warm summer evening in the middle of Manhattan, five women stepped up to the large patio of the Museum of Modern Art’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Habibi, the name of the Brooklyn-based band whose music Pichfork has called “charming and intriguing,” is an Arabic colloquial term for a loved one. Beneath the pastel evening sky, the performers were cool sisters to each other and the crowd. They wore white, accented with psychedelic colorful neon prints and began to casually jam away, comfortable in front of the audience. They looked ready for their late-’90s rooftop close up, à la Ten Things I Hate About You.

The gathered crowd of young hipsters and well-timed tourists crammed in – sitting, leaning, standing, vying for a good view, despite the fact that they could hear perfectly well, with the sound flying around the boxed-in space, bordered by fancy apartments, offices, and crystal clear windows giving peeks into the layers of galleries inside the museum. It was about the performance – the presence of the player.

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The poppy-rock music has a sitar-tinged vibe and hippie-era cool. The whole scene was full of alternative, dip-dyed glamour. It unfolded like a series of hipster polaroids, ready for the trendiest dorm room. It was a show of girl power beneath a thirty-six foot tall metallic rose by artist Isa Genzken. Under its magic, the beauties were unveiled as bass-thumping beasts, causing a mellow head-bobbing, hip-swaying trance to pass over the gathered listeners.

 

Find Habibi on Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp

MoMA Summer Thursdays run July 5 through August 30, 2018.

 

Bewilderment, Unprepared: “Born, Never Asked”

As you ascend the stairs of Metro Pictures, the tangerine walls reflect on the glossy white gallery floors and bounce into your eyes. At the top of the stairs, an odd image of a green hairy monster embracing (or restraining) and fingering an orange woman welcomes you to the exhibition. The image makes you do a double take – what is happening here? – and sets the tone for the show.

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In Thy Tender Care, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 21 by 29 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

Violence. At first there is whimsy – playful, cartoon-like watercolor and ink images in pastel tones; flowing lines that at a glance seem fitting of a children’s book.

Whimsy. On closer inspection the forms are grotesque and the cheerful lines are violent: hands and mouths on unsatisfied erections, distorted animals and women, twisted familial and romantic relationships, blood smear-splatters as in afterbirth or menstruation or pain.

The show is possessive, primal, impulsive. Romance is reduced to strange intimate encounters, portrayed as if in a dream (or perhaps a nightmare). The delicacy and almost-minimalism of the images remains figurative and graphically narrative, clear but confusing.

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Nothing to Wear to Work 2, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 29 by 21 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

The sex acts – entering and exiting of mingling forms – feel invasive rather than loving as heads are pushed to the side and limbs splay out, and yet there remains a careful curiosity within the images that intrigues and almost endears. Consent seems almost forgotten, and yet none of the molten figures appears to feel out of control – there is a balance in the lustful vulnerability. Born, Never Asked: is this about the result or the act of creation?

Turning from wall to wall, you are unsure how to feel, and you embrace the multiplicity and ambiguity – these orange womb-like walls have you tucked in, surrounded by images that are buoyant at first sight, but leave a heavy pull at the back of your mind as you turn to the next one. Color, line, and order – each of the systems by which humans organize and orient themselves – are all unsettled and re-mixed in an offbeat phantasmagoria.

You look down, and find that your hands have taken on an unfamiliar hue as the walls project themselves onto you.

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Born, Never Asked installation view, 2018. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York.

Camille Henrot, Born, Never Asked, is at Metro Pictures ( 519 W. 24th St., NYC) through June 9, 2018

 

Wood, Metal, Paper: Danh Vo at the Guggenheim

In an exhibition whose title highlights breath, I found myself drawn to the concept of touch. Not simply touch as a sense, but as a concept, because of the implications of such a thing: the pressure of stone on wood, the force of a pen tip scarring paper, the impact one life has on another.

Danh Vo (born in Vietnam and now working between Berlin and Mexico City) appropriates, alters, and re-purposes found materials and objects to create new meaning, often merging the personal and the political with a deft hand. His artwork, while on the surface sparse and approachable, sits with you the more you sit with it.

With a light touch, a case containing a watch, lighter, and ring becomes a meditation on perceived masculinity, ownership, and inheritance. These objects – once belonging to Vo’s father – are at once minuscule and monolithic. Touch: a metal clock against soft skin.

The Unabomber’s typewriter is dethroned, sitting innocently on the floor, small and unassuming – non-mythical without a label shoving away the subtlety. Fingerprints on letter keys, one tapping against the other.

Further along, Beauty Queen is unassuming on the floor – a 400 year old wooden torso of crucified Jesus, separated from the rest of the body, placed in a box to the perfect fit. Above, dismembered pieces of a copy Statue of Liberty (We The People) strewn across the floor – a thumb as big as a child; the curve of a wrist large enough that I could tuck myself into it; a sheen on the horizon becoming a shine against the white of a gallery floor. People step among the story of Vo’s connection to immigration, and the repeating motif of “an iconoclastic approach” (as described in one of the exhibition’s labels); these ideas are simultaneously evident and nuanced – like the light reflecting off of the installation.

Vo’s work is dense, but it never feels too heavy.

In an exhibition filled with mighty materials, stone, wood, and metal aged to earthy musty richness and worn nostalgic metallics, I was most drawn to the delicacy and intimacy of paper.

2.2.1861 – one in an ongoing series of letters – is understated among the range of materials and physical dimensionality of the other works in the exhibition. Where other objects are gold and brown and slick and woody, this one is smooth and quiet. Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father, has copied this letter numerous times over the past nine years. Each time, it is the same – a correspondence from Théophane Vénard to his father before his decapitation in 1861; each time it is different, featuring nuances of the hand at work – a letter with a slightly steeper slant, a bolder dot where pen first met paper before skimming off into a looping letter turning word. The letter is in French – a language that Phung does not know – and he copies it in a beautiful, swooping calligraphic script that he has mastered. He can touch and sculpt the words, but cannot feel the language. The letter echoes – father to son/ father to son, copy/ copy/ copy/ copy, ink flowing from pen tip, border crossings between writer and artist and receiver.

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2.2.1861 (2009- ongoing)

When I returned home from the exhibition, I wrote a postcard to my family, not thinking about my purple marker or the crispness of my penmanship – and not writing about an impending decapitation. As I wrote, my pen made little scratching noises against the fiber of the paper, pressing ink and color against the substrate.

To emboss is to stamp or carve onto a surface so that the pressed portions become raised. If you look at it that way, while of course the letter coincides with Vo’s conceptual oeuvre, it also feels like a tactile companion to the other works. If you were to draw that link in the air between each artwork, what would it feel like to touch?

 

Danh Vo: Take My Breath Away is on view at the Guggenheim in New York City through May 9, 2018. 

 

On Witnessing Nonlinear Creation

You enter the industrial space with your hands still shoved in your pockets, desperately trying to keep your fingers warm against the chill of waiting in line outside, wondering where you’re about to be.

As your hands adjust to the indoor warmth, your eyes adjust to the near-darkness. In the center of the room, a glowing half-sphere is filled with some gel – glue, Jell-o, opaque alien ooze? The light from the orb diffuses around the room, illuminating the audience – a well-packed group of about 100 viewers – as well as the three performers, all masked, all dressed almost fully in black. On one side of the orb, a woman lies on the ground, feet up on a mirrored chrome cube. On the other, another figure is seated, Buddha-like, with a circle cape encompassing their body. Attending the vat of goo is a lanky man. He reaches in, smoothing and testing, dipping his hand in and out.

Slowly, he reaches in and pulls out a submerged net, he shakes the goo off, and walks away, between the crowd, which fully encircles the performance. The two dancers stay behind, their bodies cranking and bending mechanically, twisting and writhing in unnatural ways. You are enthralled and confused.

Upon return, the man moves between the goo and an iPad – bee-like in his attention. Slowly, a device is lowered into the gel, a syringe pumps out blue-back something, trekking around and in the half-circle.

Around you, a mechanical soundtrack, loud and rhythmic, is punctuated by the hiss of an air compressor, determined to be acknowledged.

You are braver now. You have adjusted to the strangeness and are moving – skirting the perimeter, watching the dancers, whispering to those around you as you all wonder what is going on. The artist statement clutched in your now-warm hands is useless in the dark, more of a security blanket than a sword to fight whatever masked-monster may separate itself from the shadows, or whatever alien may be birthed from the centerpiece of the performance.

As you move you discover a fourth performer inside a large black fabric cylinder, which has been slowly creeping its way around. A tall body is visible, back lit by the gel depository. It moves deliberately, winding something up and slapping it to the ground, moving in a circle like a trapped animal in a cage.

In a heartbeat, the lights go off. The music stops. The air compressor is silent. The dancers stop moving and the vat-attendant has dematerialized. There is a collective pause. Do you clap, or wait? Is this a pause, an accident, or the end of the performance?

In the back of the room, the lights come on. A slow, careful curiosity draws people toward strange objects, hanging like fabric on a clothesline, and a shallow pool of water on the floor. The walls feel too white to have been so dark the moment before.

There is some kind of collective relaxing as people decide to touch – feel those blue-black umbilical cords and stick their hand gingerly in the slime.

What you have just witnessed was a birth, of sorts, printing in three dimensions; not layer by layer, but as a line pulled through space, in reverse.

Terre Mécanique, a performance by Kelly Nipper in association with the MIT Self Assembly Lab, was presented as a commission at Performa 17 Biennial (November 1 – 19, 2017) in New York City on November 9th, 10th, and 11th (this performance on the 11th). More information on the event can be found here. More information on Performa can be found here. Note: “line pulled through space” is a phrase used by Nipper at her artist talk on November 12, 2017.

 

Making Connections

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Light string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea

Art is about connection. Connecting ideas and stories and people and more art. These connections can happen serendipitously.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial – among all of the clamor over VR violence and questionable portraiture – stood a quiet alcove. Across from the gaping mouth of Anicka Yi’s video room was a classic white box gallery space containing six brightly colored canvases. These paintings by Shara Hughes were vibrant, abstract, and full of life. They made me stop and sit for a moment on a bench in the center of the space. I paused. The next day, I stumbled across another Shara Hughes show at Rachel Uffiner Gallery in the Lower East Side. Engagement, then a second, unexpected opportunity.

Visual art is, of course, associated with the eyes. But it can connect to all of the senses.

Sound was also featured in the Biennial, in various ways. There was the awful sound of skull on concrete in Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence , on the other hand there was the calm voice of the narrator in Anicka Yi’s The Taste Genome. Plus the glorious hum of museum goers, quietly discussing, debating, dissecting.

Taste. Following the Biennial, I went to David Zwirner, where a new Felix Gonzalez-Torres show was up after the recent change in representation. It is undoubtedly the best gallery show I have ever experienced. Experienced – not seen – because I did not simply exist in the space, I participated. I bent down and plucked a sweet, minty candy from the pile of Ross in the corner of the upstairs gallery space. It was hard and real on my tongue. Substance from substance.

And touch. In that same show I walked through a curtain of beads. I heard them click against each other and I felt their weight shift around me and over me as my body disrupted the solid but shifting barrier. There were blue curtains, too. Light and thin and airy, they covered the windows in a long room upstairs. I could imagine them flowing in the breeze if the windows were open. I could imagine the fabric – smooth on my fingers.

My pen was blue, too, that day as I wrote what I saw. I touched it. I felt it.

Smell is tricky. I wasn’t knocked out by Pope L.’s bologna at the Biennial – it was disappointing, in a way. But today I spent all my time among art and people that love it. Young museum professionals, as we connected in museums. Together we looked, and then we smelled through time – experiencing Ancient Rome through six bottles (like Hughes’s six paintings those few weeks ago) containing ghosts – from flowers to fish sauce. Along the way we talked and listened, too.  We touched – with a handshake our connections expanded. All of our senses worked today.

Feeling needs to be distinguished too. It is different from touch. Feeling is the most important sense in connecting with visual art. Maybe feeling is a well-placed bit of dismembered metal on a wall – a Trigger, left by Puppies Puppies as subtly as a landmine. Or maybe it’s those curtains – beads and fabric – blue and blue. Maybe it’s the way color can get wrapped up with a person, so blue becomes love. Maybe it’s taking that moment on that bench in the center of that white room broken by Shara Hughes’s fantasy environments.

Art is about more than eyes. Eyes are a part of a larger body – your larger body. And it is made of so many connections.

 

Shara Hughes “Same Space Different Day” at Rachel Uffiner runs until June 25, 2017.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner runs until July 14, 2017.

The Guggenheim: Calder, Brancusi, and Three Little Munchkins

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Currently on view at the Guggenheim in New York is show “Visionaries,” featuring works by Kandinsky, Picasso, and more. Perhaps my favorite was a Calder called Arc of Petals (1941). It was like a 3D Miro. It was like standing in a windstorm among blossoms – as the title suggests. The piece was more than the scupture itself – it was also its shadow. Peter Pan would have loved it, the way the metal pieces and their dark counterparts were free to move, but never to move alone.

While that was the show I came for, it was another unexpected encounter that won the day.

Off the rotunda, a sampling of Brncusi sculptures are being shown. The centerpiece(s) of the collection are three wooden creations: not-quite-totem-poles, not-quite-figures, not-quite-recognizable… Adam and Eve, The Sorceress, and King of Kings.

Next to these three sculptures were three other things: little girls. Sitting in front of the pieces – smaller than them already, but even more so when hunched over their notebooks – were three girls probably between the ages of 3 and 7. Each of them was intently focused on their work. Their heads went up and down as they looked and drew and looked again. The littlest one was initially drawing a face, but eventually switched to match the older two, recreating King of Kings on the page in front of her. She kept stealing glances at the drawings of her companions. They shaded and lined and compared. Repeat.

As I stepped closer and watched for a moment, I thought of myself. My first museum memory is of sitting in front of a huge totem pole at the Denver Art Museum, drawing and looking and occupying the dim room with the dark carpet and just being there.

There must be something about kids and big sculptures. If you let them, they really want to look.

 

“Visionaries” is on view until September 6, 2017

“Brancusi” is on view until January 3, 2018

Dreamlands

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Jud Yalkut “Destruct Film” – 1967

Screen. Light and shadows dance and mix and chase. There is movement across and in between. The screen runs up against the darkness. Or maybe there is no screen, just a wall and a projected image. Out of a machine little particles fly, looking for something to knock up against and explode – illuminate.

Sound. Whir buzz crash. Cymbals. Crash. A low hum of a projector. A voice that is not human but is familiar.

Hallways connect light and sound. A voice bleeds into the click of the projector. One dark room becomes another – keep your bearings so you don’t get lost in this world. White becomes pink, neon, green. (Alex Da Corte and Jaysson Musson “Easternsports”) Each moment you are in front of, inside, in between. In between.

Between walls, between light particles, between sounds, between works of art, between understandings and thoughts. Just as fast in and out of one and another as the images come and go before your gaze. In between moments of wonder and engagement.

In between dreams and consciousness.

In low light, snippets of sound drift out of indistinguishable aboves. You can hold light, catch the projector beam in your hand, then cough in the smoke, move, release, and it is gone. (Anthony McCall “Line Describing a Cone”) Open your eyes from one darkness to the next and catch at the memory, try to grasp it as the last tendrils fade and the dream, only an imagined memory to begin with, is now another degree removed.

The confetti of it sticks in your brain – falling upon you at strange times. The confetti of film crunches under your feet – hold it up to the light of another film being projected. Your shadow interrupts that of another on the wall. 5 – 4 – 3 – crunch under feet – out of the gallery and into the next. (Jud Yalkut “Destruct Film”)

Images come and go like fireflies blinking in and out – magical and speedy. (Philippe Parreno “With a Rhythmic Instinction to be Able to Travel Beyond Existing Forces of Life”) It is enchanting to watch life that is not life like ours but somehow still gets it.

You are enveloped and it is a game. You watch or play or exist. (Hito Steyerl “Factory of the Sun”)  Somehow every part of it gets bundled up in the blue light, and play and commentary and reality are all confused.

Because it is real. And it is a reality beyond touch, but within feeling. A dreamland.

 

“Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art 1905-2016” is on view at the Whitney until February 5, 2017

Image: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/Dreamlands?&artwork_id=17251&filter_id=73