7.3.17 — Bacteria, Ants, and Women

What do Asian American women have in common with carpenter ants? They both figure in the art of Anicka Yi—and they both smell.

If one may trust the artist, in fact, they do not smell half bad. They do not, at any rate, preclude entering Life Is Cheap, through July 5, although they do present a bit of an obstacle. They are not the first. One enters a Guggenheim Museum tower gallery past a warning about aromas and through two steel gates, to reach a “holding pen,” where three canisters emit a scent taken, she swears, from women and ants.

Yi claims to draw on a whole team of “molecular biologists and forensic scientists” to study how “gender, race, and class shape physical perception.” And she has a history of dubious appeals to the senses. She appeared in “A Disagreeable Object” at SculptureCenter and in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she interviewed a “flavor chemist” along the Amazon. Here, too, she boasts of a “biopolitics of the senses,” and here, too, it comes across as sentimental and pretentious. She has this year’s Hugo Boss Prize, like Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tacita Dean, and Emily Jacir before her, and it has not always gone well. As the song goes, “Life is short, and talk is cheap. Don’t be making promises that you can’t keep.”

She is not, fortunately, all talk, and her installation does not end with a cloying smell. She calls that first part Immigrant Caucus, which sounds like Donald J. Trump’s worst nightmare in the Senate. Yet it has a visual component as well, in the bareness of the holding pen. The canisters lie in a corner by a third gate, as if left there by mistake. At first I thought she meant that Asian women and ants smell the same—which could explain why Asian cuisine involves neither one as ingredients. I came to appreciate instead the visual threats.

Past the gates, a museum’s white cube stands empty, making all the more dramatic the busy displays on facing walls. Ant life and the immigrant experience branch off behind glass, as Force Majeure and Lifestyle Wars. In one, the ants make their way through white tunnels in the shape of a giant circuit diagram. Mirrors above and below multiply its depths to infinity. The tunnels have a further reflection in a construction like coral at the window’s center, broken by a white pole topped by, I am guessing, a hat. In the other, New York’s Chinatown and Koreatown appear only as bacteria sampled from genuine urban cultures.

Yi sets them, though, on something more directly allusive. The bacteria grow on agar, as in a lab, spread on off-white tiles that ascend as steps in front of similarly tiled walls. They could belong to a public atrium or an Asian temple. They are also the setting for more fabric, Ethernet cables, and digital clocks ticking off the invisible motion of biological and electronic networks. Beside the shared dimensions, both sides of the room riff on colonies, circuits, and cultures. They are visually alluring but slightly disgusting.

Yi pulls off a display for the senses, while keeping the insects and bacteria (I hope) behind glass. Born in South Korea, she also aligns herself with the politics of globalization, global feminism, and Asian American art. Does she have enough to say about any of them? Not really, unless you believe that ants, bacteria, and microchips are fitting metaphors for oppressed cultures and the lifestyle wars. If anything, language seems to have broken down entirely, even in the supposed service of political and critical theory. One can, though, admire the breakdown while exiting the last steel gate.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

3.6.17 — Asian Industry

Tales of Our Time” 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, at the Guggenheim, that more often recalls a distant time or world. And I have added this to earlier reports on global displacement and post-industrial waste as a longer review and my latest upload.

Cheng Ran's Diary of a Madman (photo by Maris Hutchinson/EPW Studio, New Museum, 2016)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 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, the exhibition 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, through March 10, 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 recently at the New Museum, through January 15. 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.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.