Tuesday, September 19, 2006


The most moving & profound work of art I see on my day in Chelsea is neither the most well crafted (that would have been Chie Fueki at the Mary Boone Gallery, Amy Myers’ graphite & soft pastels at the Mike Weiss Gallery or the Hans Richter dada retrospective at the Maya / Stendhal – its last day there, alas¹), nor the most provocative (that would be “The Message is the Medium,” the group show responding to war & terror curated by Marshall Reese at Jim Kempner Fine Art), nor that with the biggest price tag (that has to be Richard Serra’s blocks & slabs at Gagosian). Rather, by far the work that drills deepest right through my soul is an exhibition of photographs by Hai Bo at Max Protetch, especially a series of eight portraits of peasants on bicycles approaching on a road in the flat rural northern landscape of the People’s Republic. Judging by the already harvested crops & the heavier weight parkas these men are wearing – five of the eight with Mao caps as well, at least three with gloves – the photographs were taken in late autumn & the suggestion of closure that comes with this is no accident. Indeed, it’s vital to the power of the work. Each individual photograph is just under four feet tall, mounted high enough on the gallery wall that you are almost eye to eye with each subject. The one on the far right looks to his right, as if to the other bicyclists – it’s a brilliant & unifying juxtaposition.

Framed as high art in one of the literally hundreds of galleries that dot the Chelsea between 10th avenue and the Hudson River in what must be the most rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in America, these eight men – the title of the work is The Northern: A Man is Riding a Bicycle, No. 1-8, can be interpreted many different ways, including what I take to be the obvious symbolic one for this audience, that China is riding out of the past up to greet us, that these men are literally pedaling into their and our future. Even more than the allergic reaction to modernity we see in the various fundamentalisms – Islam’s variant isn’t so far from Christianity’s in this regard – the emergence of China will be the great story of this century. The past out of which these men ride is every bit as doomed (I want to hear to the dustbins of history) as is affordable housing amid the convoluted gallery scene of the west side of Manhattan (where, over tofu fajitas at the Empire Diner for lunch, I heard someone moan that you couldn’t rent a two-bedroom apartment in the area for under $5,000 a month any more). More than any other show that I saw this past weekend – and I trudged through dozens until my brain locked up & my feet screamed for relief from hard gallery floors – Hai Bo seems to have his finger exactly on where we are at this moment in the evolution of world history & captures it succinctly. It’s political without being directly political, aesthetic without being excessively formal, the series is both witty & graceful & terribly sad all at once. Family of Man, meet Late Capital.

The show is a telling reminder that what controls reception of the work of art above all else is context – not craft, not brains nor skills nor the ability to provoke, as such, save insofar as these aid in the manipulation of context, which in this post-conceptual era (or not so post-conceptual over at “The Message is the Medium” show), is every bit as much a material of art as any canvas, pigment or sculptural gunk.

Two other shows this same weekend make clear just why Hai Bo’s photographs are so powerful. One is “Brooklyn Abroad,” another series of photographs by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher that just opened at the Sonnabend, while the other is Reese’s show at the Kempner. The Robbins-Becher show contains two series of photographs, one of various Chabad Houses around the world. Chabad, the organization of the Lubavitch branch of Hasidism, the other of Hasids living in Postville, Iowa, a quaint Iowa farm town that is home to the largest per capita rabbi population in the world, thanks to the presence there of a major kosher meat packing plant. The Chabad Houses are called “770s,” after the last home of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994), located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. All of these other Chabad Houses replicate the architecture of the original site, with its three-peaked roof and brick exterior. At first glance, these very large photographs look like a PhotoShop stunt, until you realize that the replicas are never completely exact. But what really jumps out is how much each sets itself aside from whatever the other local features of the landscape might be – thus for example the five-story São Paulo building is sandwiched between two high-rise apartment buildings, virtually the only building in the vicinity that doesn’t lockstep into the late-modernist urbanism of that city. In the Postville series, we see Hasids mowing lawns, working on tractors and playing baseball. The only thing missing from that series is the presence of Kevin Costner! Robbins & Becher are savvy enough postmodern artists to build in the requisite formalism to create their two series – in this sense, they’re no different from Hai Bo. But there is a sentimentalism about both of these sequences that combines with the gigantic and always bright-to-the-max color photography that yields a mock heroism as purely kitsch as any balloon puppy ever envisioned by Jeff Koons. Unlike Koons, however, I think they don’t have much control over their own uses of irony here, or maybe don’t even see it themselves. Family of Man, meet the Lifetime Channel.

Context works overtime at the “Message is the Medium” show, where the first thing that takes your breath away is, just to your right as you walk in the door, is a variant of the 1970 “WAR IS OVER / IF YOU WANT IT” poster/Christmas card of John Lennon & Yoko Ono. On the front desk is a huge bowl of political buttons, each reading “Imagine Peace.” But what you hear, omnipresent on the first floor of the Kempner, is the droning voice of George Walker Bush himself, around the corner broadcasting from a DVD that plays some of his semi-coherent babble about terrorism while on a TV monitor you see an ice sculpture of the word DEMOCRACY melting in some time-lapse process, a piece produced by show curator Marshall Reese with his partner Nora Ligorano (they have been producing work as Ligorano/Reese for some 20 years now). Immediately across the small room from the meltdown of democracy, so to speak, is a large (2000 piece) jigsaw puzzle by Christoph Draeger that shows a detail of TWA 800, the 1996 Long Island air disaster that has long been a point of contention for the conspiracy minded, some of whom think it was brought down by a ground-to-air missile, whether launched by al-Qaeda or friendly fire. In the main room, past the Marlene McCarty flag with stars only visible for blue states (a total of 19, and, as best I can tell, she has the right stars visible) and a couple of giant Carolee Schneeman prints whose relevance to the show overall escaped me, tho I was happy to see them there – they were the least predictable items in the exhibition – is another even larger Draeger jigsaw puzzle, this time of the oilfields of Kuwait burning in 1991. Upstairs, you can see a DVD of Yoko Ono leading the audience at the Tate in a flashlight salute that she declares means I Love You, followed then by the same at a giant concert in a stadium in Tokyo. Downstairs, Constantin Boym has a series of small sculptures, the size of the little memorial tchotchkes you get in souvenir gift shops, only this time made of cast bonded nickel. Included are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, with the holes made by the airplanes, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Princess Di’s auto wreck in Paris, the little wood frame house in Los Alamos that we’ve each seen vaporized by a 1950s A-bomb test hundreds of times, a nuclear power plant that I presume to be Chernobyl, etc.

If the immediate context for the show is the present Iraq war and a sense of the horror that attaches itself to George Bush’s war on democracy, the reality that is offered up by the show is that this has been going on over & over & over now for nearly 40 years. This is a vision of the world as viewed by Noam Chomsky on his most dour day, and I think it has something of the opposite effect of the Hai Bo exhibit, in that I think it drains the viewer of any possible response. So you see a Hans Haacke C-print on aluminum of all the lights on Times Square, with one image of a presumed Abu Ghraib prisoner, only with a flag instead of a canvas sack covering his head, as bright as an ad for Coke. Far from invoking the horror of that prison or of the U.S. approach to prisoners in general, whether the 14,000 war prisoners we’re holding in Iraq or the 2 million we have here at home in our jails and corrections facilities (one of which is smack in the middle of Chelsea on 20th Street), my reaction to too many of these images is numbness. I actually agree with many, if not all, of these artists, I share their anger & despair, but nothing in the show offered me any insight as to what to think or do next.

Not so Hai Bo. Precisely because he’s not dealing with the conflict of cultures at their most obvious pain points, his images offer up much more to think about, whether present in the images directly – just think of the role of the bicycle in the history of transportation, especially at a time with an author like Mike Davis is current penning a history of the car bomb, “the poor man’s nuclear weapon.” Think of the history of agriculture, of Communism (big and little C), of the Chinese regulation of society – Mao caps in 2006! – and of the role of images in contemporary life. The very lyricism of Hai Bo’s photography calls up its consciously conflicted function as an art object, and one senses a level of control over this that is unmatched anywhere in the Kempner show – with the notable exceptions of Ono & perhaps Schneeman, they’re all Adorno-ites there, confirmed in their belief that the lyric post 9.11 is barbaric – and utterly beyond Robbins & Becher altogether. Hai Bo’s show will be up through the remainder of the month. I seriously recommend that you take a look.


¹ And how ironic that an old Dadaist might prove the best craftsperson, or at the very least one of the best thereof. Those old aesthetic values turn out to have been hard to overthrow.


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