Heman Chong’s exhibition at the Rockbund Art Museum brings the visitor to the threshold of paradoxical emotions and concepts.
Space is too empty
Object is too much
Sound is too loud
Display is too artificial
Picture is too large
Transition is too disturbing
Emotion is too unstable
The act of making an image in Heman Chong’s art never resume to an immersive, seductive, narrative display.
Solitude in the act of seeing is mixed with frictions to social political address.
Language never tells the truth. It is an act of translation, transition, transformation.
Gossip is gossip is gossip.
Deploying layers of texts and images that are made of disruptions, contaminations, interruptions, extensions, combinations, additions.
From the entrance of the Museum the visitor confronts an erotic kind of red and yellow neon sign flashing the Chinese characters: 书书书 which means BOOK BOOK BOOK and which has the similar pinyin sound of SHŪ SHŪ SHŪ which means LOSE LOSE LOSE.
Such word-sound-visual play announces Heman’s obsessive love of looping with text and image as a disruptive process of making and experiencing the picture.
Book as a sign is soon materialized at the reception lobby where the Museum’s souvenir shop has been transformed into a full bookshop. People enjoy leafing through books but it appears that the majority of these books are related to law: how strange. Law about law, law of physics, law for inventing of language, China and law. But this Legal Bookshop is “contaminated” with other books related to poetry, lego play, history, art, science fiction, fantasy. The selection has been made by Ken Liu, a speculative fiction writer, a legal expert, a translator, a programmer who has blown up the codes of writing.
There is never a stable and fixed message in Heman’s pictures.
A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, 1968, Manteia, Translated by Richard Howard
So let’s go straight up to the Museum’s sixth floor where the space is brightly white, contrasting with the dark dimmed bookshop on the ground floor: “trapped” into a glass platform, a “reader” is reading on his/her cell phone the Baidu Baike (equivalent of Wikipedia) news of the day with the rule given by Heman Chong to systematically browse the Baidu text from the fifth link to other fifth link. The monochord voice of the reader is broadcasted through “speakers” all over the Museum café where the visitor can sit, walk, listen and look through the window glass the reader. But not easy to rest and chat in this pure white cube filled with sound. Such performance highlights the strange relation of the visitor his/her position of uttering/producing words, language and knowledge: it becomes and evidence that the act of reading is not only an act of ready it also an act of translation: Baidu Baike highlights the automatism/obsession of language as the site of knowledge production but in the same time it questions the reciprocity and the conditions of exchange. It is a full act of dissemination, mediation, appropriation, transformation of words. Translation is not about fixed meaning but travelling words.
In Baidu Baike we are facing the extreme saturation of space with words, opposite to what Mallarme was calling for the spacing of words and the spacing of reading. By acting/reading this saturation of knowledge, Heman Chong brings back the question of thought and speaking as a real process of alienation. As Jacques Derrida was stating:
Because to speak is to know that thought must become alien to itself in order to be pronounced and to appear. It wishes, then, to take itself back by offering itself.
Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, London Routledge, 2005 (1968), translation Alan Bass, p.383.
SHARE, BUT IT’S NOT FAIR is a pretty strange title for an exhibition that puts on show four hundred red and yellow cushions hung from the ceiling, twenty-four bear skins which form a loop in space, more than one million white pearls which spring forth from a painting, nine fountains of colored liquids, innumerable threads of multicolored ribbons photographed, a multitude of miniature vases and chairs transformed into lamps, a print on canvas showing an airplane flying upside-down and transporting a community of individuals busy in their day-to-day activities.
At first sight, the works express nothing but the power and simplicity of forms, the diversity and generosity of colors and the subtlety of the ordering of objects in space. The first perception that predominates in the exhibition SHARE, BUT IT’S NOT FAIR is thus one of visual and aesthetic jubilation.
A specialist of contemporary art, accustomed to cultivating a necessary critical distance from works of art and often demanding from them a form that is, at a minimum, serious and conceptual, could very well misinterpret Paola Pivi’s œuvre in reducing it to a simple strategy of aesthetic seduction.
The Power to Act
Organized around an extensive essay by Larys Frogier, this reference monograph offers an overview of Abdessemed’s work.
Adel Abdessemed (born 1971 in Constantine, lives and works in Paris and Berlin) deconstructs identity codes, tackling head-on the tensions that permeate our society. His works, with their typical simplicity—sculptural installations, drawings, photographs, videos and performances—echo precise facts and familiar situations, but go beyond narrative commentary and militant criticism. Adel Abdessemed questions, among other things, the social and economic status of the artist in a system where his foothold is slight, by shrewdly keeping a distance in a gesture of subversive and committed resignation.
Abdessemed refuses to be limited to a single ideology. In his early works he passionately tackled religious, sexual, and taboos subjects and his later exhibitions have often focused on the theme of global violence. In an interview with Elisabeth Lebovici he stated, “I do not live between two cultures. I am not a postcolonial artist. I am not working on the scar and am not mending anything. I am just a detector … In the public sphere, I use passion and rage. Nothing else. I don’t do illusions.”
Sometimes reduced to a simple word, as in “Mohammedkarlpolpot” (1999), a condensation of names evoking totalitarism and religion, and sometimes complex and monumental installations such as “Habibi” (2004), a suspended skeleton of 17 meters propelled by a jet engine, Abdessemed’s practice belongs to a new generation of artists who appeared recently on the French art scene, looking to offer another perspective on culture and identity.
Paola Pivi works at thrusting the image into the world: sixteen long metal tubes from which coloured liquids pour uninterruptedly (It’s a Cocktail Party, 2008); a huge steel structure reaching from floor to ceiling in a crystallisation of myriad, multicoloured artificial gemstones (If you like it, thank you. If you don’t like it, I am sorry. Enjoy anyway, 2007); a dummy polar bear covered with vivid feathers (What is My Name?, 2007); a helicopter resting on its propeller (A Helicopter upside down in a Public Space, 2006); two live zebras photographed in a vista of snow and ice (Untitled, zebras, 2003); and more.
Pivi’s works are the outcome of weird but extremely, cogently precise orderings of things: representations often striking in terms not only of their shape, colour and lighting, but above all of their capacity to assert themselves as lightning-like intrusions into reality – with no narrative gambit, no symbolic justifications, no metaphorical or allegorical convolutions. It is as if, inevitable and unchallengeable, they are colliding with reality. They are there because they have to be there. Unshrinkingly the artist works towards material expression of an image that has taken over her mind and is driven, imperiously, to find existence in the world. In other words, the art of Paola Pivi systematically gambles on images with the power to be more real than any other reality.
Obviously the experience of the real must be understood as the testing and manifestation of an object incapable of being symbolised through language – unlike reality, which is already a form of representation of the world.
All of which makes Pivi’s works infinitely delicious and disquieting.
Nonetheless, the artist’s mode of image production can be reduced neither to creation of works through surrealistically unconscious process, nor to visual presentation of some private or public trauma. Pivi simply sets out to situate in the real world an image that seems more real than real.
Or to put it another way: the image is fantasy within reality.
Her titles often set in motion the beginnings of a fictional narrative, but one immediately suspended so as to reinforce the works’ enigmatic character. In other cases the titles are purely descriptive or testify almost tritely to a perceptual state.
Pivi works with pre-existing, decidedly ordinary materials, as well as such living creatures as the horses, ostriches, dogs, giraffes, llamas and butterflies that activate her many photographs and performances. And yet the conjunction of these materials and creatures generates extraordinary situations, projects that seem a priori unimaginable, technically aberrant and semantically inconceivable. Who else would have thought of setting two ostriches afloat in a little boat or making a painterly photograph out of an alligator covered with whipped cream crawling over brown earth (Fffffffffffffffffff, 2006)? And once these events have happened – once they have been made visual – they suddenly seem self-evident, yet with no diminution of their mystery and their capacity to stop us in our tracks.
It is this realisation that sparks the sublime in the aesthetic experience of her works, yet without luring the viewer into the trap of mere vacuous contemplation.
It was in this spirit that Pivi created for the La Criée Art Centre in Rennes If you like it, thank you. If you don’t like it, I am sorry. Enjoy anyway, a huge steel structure entirely covered with fake, multicoloured gemstones. Entering the exhibition space, the visitor comes face to face with a crystallisation of colours calculated to induce contradictory perceptions: the lightness and simplicity of the work contradict its monumental aspect; the visual appeal of the stones is concurrent with a sense of menace induced by the impassable wall of the grid; and the work’s flashy superficiality clashes with a latent intimation of violence.
It’s a Cocktail Party, first shown at Portikus in Frankfurt, offers sixteen vats hooked up to pumps and towering steel tubes from which pour olive oil, water, syrup, glycerine, red wine, black ink, espresso coffee and other liquids. Visually the visitor is hemmed in by splendid monochrome gushings, while the steel structures stationed within the space present as perfect Minimalist sculptures. At the same time the sound of the liquids and the mix of odours take the visitor into a work in a state of perpetual transformation, a generator of Dionysian chaos.
In her art Pivi displays an endless fascination with the infinite possibilities of matter and form, yet ensures that her quest never loses even a fraction of its gentle mockery, subversive force and critical vigilance. In this respect Alicudi Project is magisterial: in 2001 Pivi began her 1:1 scale photographic reproduction of the of the 5.1 square kilometre island of Alicudi off the northern coast of Sicily. Completion of the task will ultimately require the printing of 3472 rolls of PVC, each 50 x 5 metres, but the work’s visual force is already present in the wild idea of the 1:1 scale and the ongoing unrolling of the fragments in different venues.
This might appear a titanic undertaking, but in respect of this island it is, for the artist, quite simply a modest personal response: here we are at the opposite pole from territorial ownership.
Art for Paola Pivi is certainty.
Not as a form of authoritarianism or binding truth, but rather as commitment to making images more powerful than any conventional, totalitarian depiction of reality.