Trapped Between Worlds

John Haber
in New York City

Insecurities and Sophia Al-Maria

Tales of Our Time

Fear of radical Islam. Fear of terrorism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of capitalism. Fear of imperialism. Fear of the heavy hand of the United States.

Is it up to art to bridge North and South, East and West? "Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter" looks instead at those caught between worlds, but it fails to put a face on the refugee crisis. Meanwhile Sophia Al-Maria sees the bridge as all too real. She finds "temples of capitalism" in the Gulf states, amid the glitter of video, shopping malls, and post-industrial waste. Cheng Ran's Diary of a Madman (photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio, New Museum, 2016)

In China, "Tales of Our Time" finds only the waste. It opens with a swirl of black. It ends with a pool of red liquid, which an industrial robot disperses and gathers again. They are exuberant moments in a show that more often recalls a distant time or world.

Shelter from the storm

What can art do in the face of a refugee crisis? What can anyone do to help the more than sixty million uprooted by poverty, oppression, terror, and war? What can one say to people without means, without a certain future, or without a home? One could try to bring the horror to the attention of others and demand action from nations. One could assist with shelter and provisions. One could offer compassion—and address the roots of the crisis, so that the forced displacements will end and not happen again.

The Modern does its best with "Insecurities," but it never gets past the first. Even there, it barely glances at the headlines. It has at its center an actual shelter—a modular shed from the appropriate United Nations agency, for temporary use only, UN label intact. To its side lie the barest of provisions, such as an emergency blanket, water purification tablets, and a UNICEF "adolescent kit for expression and innovation." Toys, to you. Visitors will have little clue as to whether the museum means these as exemplary or dismaying.

The shelter stands out for its sheer presence, in an exhibition that struggles to fill so much as a single room. One can enter, noting the bare interior and IKEA-designed doorway, just large enough that I, at least, did not have to stoop. Surrounding it is documentation, in maps and photographs. The maps include drawings, interactive software, a wall installation with each path of human flight a different colored thread, and even a tapestry, the variation all but incidental to meaning or purpose. The photographs fall mostly into two grids, one of makeshift shelters and the other of boat people, but both oddly reassuring. The first look admirably ingenious, even when falling apart, and the boats bear not just people but their hopes.

Still, the display falls well short of compassion or understanding. It never singles out human lives or national histories, like Janet Biggs in Africa. Even the photographers run together, from Dorothea Lange in the Great Depression to more than a dozen others in the present, daring one to single out a name. Then again, that may be the point. One of the few artists on hand, Do Ho Suh, contributes a doormat with welcome in bristly rubber spikes. Do not expect a warm welcome.

The curators, Sean Anderson with Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, take nothing for granted, least of all a welcome. They speak of shelter as a human right but also a means of control. They speak of a "fluid sovereignty" in the face of modernity and globalization. They speak of "unbelonging" and "proto-cities." They may end up, though, reducing politics to postmodern theory, and they may not do enough to illustrate either one. On the maps, the borders look as impregnable as ever.

As the show opened, Bouchra Khalili still had the museum atrium for The Mapping Journey Project, videos tracing the routes of eight refugees, and the International Center of Photography was planning its own account, as "Perpetual Revolution." It, too, comes off as an exercise in mapmaking, in contrast to images that leave searing memories—in the press and from artists working among refugees in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. Tiffany Chung does better with small monitors in mahogany connected by a tangle of wires on the floor, as Finding One's Shadow in Ruins and Rubble. They could stand for individuals, for the media bringing them to attention, for the information overload burying their fates, or for access to news and the Internet denied them in overcrowded camps. The most telling juxtaposition, though, comes in the exhibition's opening—the very same day as one on modern interior design. Guess which show has the real question in its title, as "How Should We Live?"

A gulf apart

Sophia Al-Maria did not travel to Qatar to recover her Arab heritage. She did not leave her native Tacoma to escape months of rain for the desert sun. She just wanted to catch up with her shopping—and a nation's. And she never once had to venture out of doors. For more than fifteen minutes, her video moves through enormous shopping malls, like cities all but emptied of their people. Here not even consumers dare to spoil the sanctity of global capitalism.

Al-Maria speaks of "secular temples of capitalism," and they have the luxuriantly tiled floors, coffered ceilings, domed skylights, and delirium to prove it. Yet she, too, goes out of her way to lend them dignity. She must have obtained a permit to clear the wide aisles, much like Holly Zausner in a majestic stroll through Grand Central Station. from Sophia Al-Maria's Black Friday (Whitney Museum, 1016)I cannot swear that she resorts to slow motion, no more than Zausner—but a couple dressed in white, as representatives of the Gulf state's ruling class, walk together in a solitary procession that may never end. Three others appear briefly in elegant western dress, stock still, like fashion models. Perhaps coincidentally, Black Friday opened at the Whitney Museum on a hot, humid July day worlds apart from the madness of New York's shopping season.

Desert heat enters the installation after all. Is that sunlight reflecting off the floors, or have artificial canals created a simulacrum of Venice? In scattered close-ups, either a store mannequin or human flesh has become a glistening white, only to dissolve in waves of orange and red. One can feel the heat, too, in dizzying effects that spin floor into ceiling. Al-Maria also sets the video in the lobby gallery behind a bed of sand marked by footprints and littered with cell phones, laptops, and tablets as The Litany. Their screens add flickering lights and more long views, like the futuristic chaos of China for Cao Fei.

Sure enough, the artist also speaks of "Gulf futurism," although she means not her work but society. She is out to document a rapid change "from pre-agricultural to consumer lifestyles." She sees a nomadic culture giving way to "urban and economic development," but at the awful cost of "environmental damage, religious conservatism, and historical amnesia." Oh, and do not forget inequality, on display in the malls. The 1 percent in the United States has nothing on these guys, and they are proud of it. They have little to do with what pass for consumer lifestyles back in Washington.

Of course, Futurism in art refers to a movement in Italy decades before shopping malls or Costco for Kaari Upson. It identified Modernism with the pace of technological change, embodied in Cubism's fragmentation and, in sculpture, a striding man almost like the couple here in white. And futurism in ordinary language refers to sometimes crazy visions of the future, as with Buckminster Fuller. Sure enough, the video relies on conventions from science fiction and horror movies, including the digital morphing and ominous music. Narration in a stern British accent may be describing the scene before us, but it could just as well be introducing an episode of Star Trek. All those devices in the sand, too, could stand for the growing industrial waste from the recent past or for a prophecy.

Black Friday carries the burden of a longer lecture than art can easily bear. Has Gulf futurism truly brought about highly stratified consumer lifestyles or rather capitalism for the few—or, as in China, a little of both? How does a reference to Christmas shopping apply to an Islamic state? Al-Maria speaks of religion and the environment without quite picturing either one. Still in her early thirties, she also speaks of historical amnesia without leaving the present. Regardless, the installation is hypnotic and its portents all too real.

Asian industry

Sun Xun works not directly on the wall, but on mulberry bark paper, in the manner of traditional Chinese calligraphy and art. And the long entrance wall to a Guggenheim tower gallery immerses one in it. Up close, where one first encounters it, it dissolves into abstraction. From a distance, it resolves into a landscape—and the first of his cast of exotic birds, wolves, tigers, and dragons. More enter in color on facing walls and in a video at their center. Elsewhere the Yangjiang Group lays out a tea ceremony, but with a cuff for visitors to check their rising blood pressure—due, I suspect, only partly to caffeine.

Has one journeyed to a distant past, to the New York of Jackson Pollock, or to the future of new media? For all the claims of its title, "Tales of Our Time" unfolds anywhere but in a shared present. The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation invites its seven contributors to explore their sense of home through storytelling. The title riffs on Old Tales Retold, by Lu Xun. The 1936 novel recasts ancient legends in the China he knew. These artists recast the China they know as myth.

As myths go, it is a bleak one. Sun Xun is from northeast China, where a proud coal mine has bit the dust. Zhou Tao records the Pearl River delta on facing videos as Land of the Throat. They show construction sites at dusk as scarred earth crossed by rescue workers, steel beams, dogs, and shadows. Kan Xuan travels through central Asia for months, only to find barely a trace of more than a hundred ancient settlements. The photos from her cell phone have become stop-action videos, on the walls and on stone, of little more than blanks.

They convey few hints of displaced rural populations or daily life in cities, beyond Kan's barbed wire sculpted in marble. As the exhibition opened, China's president had consolidated power, further restricted the Internet, and taken the title "core leader." One would never know it. If the show has a villain at all, it is Japan—and there, too, not in the present. It might have ravaged China in the past, leaving only a post-industrial wasteland. It might have descended after nothing else was left.

Chia-En Jao asks taxi drivers to recall Japanese colonial rule from before they were born. It may resonate for fans of Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist who boasts of his insights from the back seat of a cab. Now and then, reality intrudes as the voice of GPS. Tsang Kin-Wah films ships off contested islands. Quotes from literary theory spin out on the walls and floors. Then again, deconstruction no longer dominates "our time" either.

Cheng Ran takes his title, too, from Lu Xun—with Diary of a Madman at the New Museum. The young Chinese artist takes his camera to the underside of New York City at the wee hours of the dawn. He seems to record the pain not of madmen but of hipsters. Fun as it is to hang out with them, one may appreciate the one stroke of comedy back at the Guggenheim, apart from GPS. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu translate the wreckage into their industrial robot safely behind glass, as Can't Help Myself. The lord helps artists who help themselves.

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"Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter" ran at The Museum of Modern Art through January 22, 2017, Bouchra Khalili through October 10, 2016. Sophia Al-Maria ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through October 31, 2016. "Tales of Our Time" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through March 10, 2017, and Cheng Ran at the New Museum through January 15. A related article looks at Chinese art since 1989.


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