“Please fasten your seatbelts as we are experiencing some turbulence” runs at Leo Xu Projects until 30 April 2017.
Shanghai-based Leo Xu Projects collaborates with Los Angeles’ David Kordansky to showcase works by Chinese and international artists expressing up-and-down currents in contemporary global affairs.
The Common Trepidations of Contemporary Art
“Please Fasten Your Seatbelts As We Are Experiencing Some Turbulence” is a group exhibition at Shanghai’s Leo Xu Projects, a collaboration with Los Angeles-based David Kordansky gallery that mixes together both venues’ roster of artists in a configuration that makes connections, suggesting the ways art can “bear witness to an uncertain state of global affairs”. In the exhibition these affairs are ambiguous ranging from religious and moral disfranchisement to fake news and the querulous intimacies of digital communication.
The reference to the anxieties of air travel in the title sets the mood for a play of ideas susceptible to fluctuations in pressure. The exhibition rises through the gallery’s three floors to present work in three registers.
Taxying (First floor gallery)
On the ground floor the work is factual, such as Heman Chong’s Simple Sabotage (2016), an appropriated text, applied directly to the wall. The words designate how decisions can be deferred by doing everything by the book; it states, “When possible refer all matters to committees for ‘further study and consideration’”. The title Vase Upon Vase, Orpheo (2013) by Betty Woodman tells it like it is too. The work consists of paired vessel-like forms, one surmounting the other, with decorative references to the lyre that allowed the legendary poet and musician Orpheus to beguile even inanimate material.
Two paintings, Rashid Johnson’s Ages (2013) and Chris Martin’s Untitled (2013), bracket Woodman’s sculpture, and include materials that shimmer, with either a mirrored surface or with iridescent glitter, affirming the influence of Orpheus on their materiality. Concealed in an alcove Evan Holloway’s Gamers (2016) has a balance of gravitas and silliness. The polychrome heads of two gamers are joined at the neck. Their noses, replaced by light bulbs, flash suggesting playful interaction as if the fact that they are part of a single entity nevertheless still needs gaming to complete their capacity to interact. Part Dieter Roth (1930 –1998) part Gerry Anderson (1929 – 2012), the object, resting on a plinth, looks as if it is a votive relic from a gaming civilisation.
Take off (Second floor gallery)
The next floor includes a further head by Evan Holloway, Performance Artist (2016). Now a head on its own, this bust relates to other works that see lone figures seeking contact. The highlights of this group are two incisive preparatory drawings for Tom of Finland’s (Touko Valio Laaksonen) iconic masculinised homoerotic figure compositions. These are notable because the figures are now isolated, displaying their bodies without audience or erotic copular.
In a similar spirit Ming Wong’s video Bülent Wongsoy: Biji Diva! (2014) focuses on the Turkish transgender diva Bülent Ersoy, transposing the specific figure to universalised doppelgängers. Performances seen in the video are extreme crossing of gender and national identities. The outrageous performers are detached and isolated from the audience who enjoy the spectacle but avert their gaze and do not connect.
The esoteric references of Wong’s work are continued by Gabriel Lester’s copy of Tony Clifton’s Jacket, Jacket: Whoopdie Doo, Whoopdie Die… Stick a Needle in Your Eye! (2007). Clifton was a lounge singer who performance artist Andy Kaufman allegedly encountered, waiting to meet Elvis Presley, at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1969. In Kaufman’s performances Clifton featured as a disagreeable figure that sought isolation through offensive posturing and by issuing insults couched as humor.
Three photographic images by Pixy Liao also represent remoteness as poetic and inevitable. Get on Top (2014) mirrors the disjuncture of the vertical orientation of the exhibition itself. A single figure precariously climbs on top of two robust figures locked together on their hands and knees. The upper figure is alone clinging to their backs, but it does not look like a sustainable scenario. In Wig (2015) the titular item sits alone on a bed craving a body and a face to complete its purpose; singularity is unstable, the wig can support multiple personas but on its own it is fragile.
In flight (Third floor gallery)
Where material and image give form to works on the floors below, it is three intangible works that define the topmost part of the exhibition. In FEAR 15/21 (2006-2017) Sissel Tolaas smears the walls with the distilled smell of fear from anxious men, an invisible essence that you smell as you pass. Gabriel Lester’s Iris: The Tragedy (2016) provides a view to outside the gallery through a spyhole but as you approach this contracts and closes in response to data from digital platforms somewhere else, as if that distant information, truth, simultaneously denies empirical experience and so personal judgments.
Liu Shiyuan’s Best Friends Ever (2017), a commission for Frieze magazine, presents a Twitter dialogue. Two artists share their perspectives on the responsibilities of life in the art world. Both strive to express their conscientiousness. One states, “I’ve had so many interesting panel discussions lately. It’s just as if I really get to discuss so many fascinating and important issues.” But, finally, when it comes down to committing to supporting a hellish sounding charity gala, their commitment peals away and excuses are made. The sequence concludes with a series of bland appropriated images of natural places – there is nowhere to escape from the interlocutors’ cultural bubble, it is pervasive.
Accompanying these fugitive works is a theatrical photographic image, Stairs (2015), by Chen Wei. The stairs rise to offer access to the upper levels of a building but they have never been completed; dramatically illuminated, the stairs of the title stand-alone leading nowhere. Commenting on Chen Wei for Japan Times John L. Tran concludes that “The images are (…) about critiquing the broken promises that come from trying to predict and control the future.”
“Please Fasten Your Seatbelts As We Are Experiencing Some Turbulence” is an exhibition that offers multiple perspectives on contemporary experience but, like Chen Wei’s image, aspirations towards the future are habitually imperfect. Throughout the exhibition communication falters; for these artists, beyond isolation, the only other option is nihilism. Where the perspective of China and the United States are often presented as divergent, it is refreshing to see common concerns elucidated through artists’ dialogue. They know we all share an uncertain future.
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