The Painted World | Whitney Houston Biennial, Kalashnikov, Lee Min Ho, FOAM
Each month, Headstuff’s Visual section brings you a taste of cities around the world. Experience the art world’s world art through our contributors from New York, Melbourne, Amsterdam, St Petersburg & Kyoto.
Anna D’Alton & Deirdre McAteer
New York City is an incomparably brimming hub for any and all pseudo-creative types, hyper-real and saturated with every conceivable dramatic, artistic, musical and miscellaneous creative performance you never knew you were missing. One that immediately piqued our interest was the Whitney Houston Biennial, run by the not-for-profit organisation chashama. It was conceived as a playful rebuttal to the Whitney Biennial –one of New York’s most prestigious exhibitions– and the predominance of male artists that characterise so many large-scale contemporary art surveys. This 2017 installment took its name from Houston’s 1985 record, ‘The Greatest Love of All’.
The exhibition’s SoHo venue –a low-key factory turned art space– made a refreshing change from the imposing temples of art that line Museum Mile on the east side of Central Park. With 125 artists represented, it was an ambitious project for such a small space; every square foot of wall and floor was put to use, so that you were drawn onto hands and knees to get a proper view of those pieces displayed on the bottom and afraid you were going to shatter a sculpture on your way back up. The pieces comprised an eclectic mix of mediums, from embroidery, to sculpture and ceramics, to video installation, to paint, to photography. Highlights included Eddy Segal’s reinvention of her mother’s wedding dress, arresting photographs by Ingrid Baars and an ironic adaptation of a vintage instructional film entitled “How to Undress in front of your husband” by Nadja Verena Marcin.
Each participating artist was invited to include a small written description paying homage to a personal, career-influencing female pioneer, resulting in a catalogue of exceptionally diverse women, from Pope Joan to Lee Miller through to Beyonce, and augmenting the overriding theme of sisterly celebration.
The night closed with a gutsy performance by the Natalie Lamonte dance troupe. Unhindered by the tiny space available, they spiritedly maneuvered around the assembled bodies and artwork, performing to a remix of souped up Whitney Houston anthems whilst the assembled audience indulged themselves in a quietly self-conscious singalong. Their send-off brought the exhibition to its imperfectly perfect end; as raw, cramped, irreverent and fun as the space itself.
[pullquote]At this point I looked up at the unsmiling men and sensed their suspicion at this foreigner’s familiarity with their weapon. Military service is compulsory in Russia, I remembered. [/pullquote]William Foley
You can see many things in the museums of Saint Petersburg: Flemish masters and gold-plated rooms in the Winter Palace, samples from Nabokov’s butterfly collection in his childhood home, even Peter the Great’s collection of deformed fetuses in the Kunstkamera. One museum which many visitors might skip – and which is advisably skippable if not visited under the right conditions – is the Artillery Museum. Though housing weapons -of every imaginable type- as opposed to what is normally classified as ‘art’, the way in which they are hung and pedestalled, treats them like art: (disconcertingly) glorified. Without context or information the museum would be dull and off-putting. Fortunately I had a guide – an Australian colleague of mine who has visited the museum eight times.
The highlight is the Kalashnikov exhibition, dedicated to the designer of the world’s most iconic assault rifles. The room is adorned with pictures of the man himself: posing under the hammer and sickle, posing under the orthodox crucifix, shaking hands with Putin. His face even embellishes a large poster, beneath which is printed: Kalashnikov – Man, Weapon, Legend. Some of his tat – a telephone, some fishing gear – is also on display, contributing to the cultish atmosphere. There are also around fifty iterations on the famous AK-47 housed in glass cases. My friend expertly narrates my tour.
Finally, the chef d’oeuvre: an actual Kalashnikov rifle is carried into the room by an elderly employee (it is one of the later AK-74 models). Fathers and their young sons gathered round the table and took it in turns to disassemble and reassemble the weapon. When our turn arrived my friend expertly dismantled the gun, explaining as he did so the function of each component. At this point I looked up at the unsmiling men and sensed their suspicion at this foreigner’s familiarity with their weapon. Military service is compulsory in Russia, I remembered. The little boys were staring too, brows furrowed and lips frozen in solemn imitation of their fathers. “Let’s go,” I said, and we did, to the next room, which houses radar and communications equipment about which my friend also knows more than enough.
With the arrival of a not-so-inclement Spring, the city’s art galleries seem to have brightened in the last few weeks. Perhaps it’s due to their collective predilection for natural light over artificial illumination, or maybe it’s the replacement of ponderous winter shows with more verdant holiday exhibitions. Either way, at FOAM, William Eggleston’s saturated Los Almos photographs (1966-74) now seem almost over-ripe as they replace Hiroshi Sugimoto’s exhibition, Black Box. Likewise, at Flatland, Gioia de Bruijn’s ranging new show, Sound is different from noise, radiates a baked-dry, Americana heat. Even outside the city, in Haarlem, the Frans Hals museum is undergoing a seasonal transformation for its annual Museum in Bloei (Museum in Bloom) installation.
The suitable timing of these openings is clearly not pure serendipity; it is curatorial organisation of the most obvious kind. Yet, there is an unintended consequence to these new displays: the highlighting of the most favourable aspect of the art world here- the homeliness of its venues. Most galleries in Amsterdam are small and, excepting the three world-leading institutions on Museumplein, quite difficult to find. This shouldn’t be a surprise; Amsterdam is, after all, a warren of canals in which large, palatial buildings are the exception not the rule. Even at the height of the Dutch Golden Age, when the city was the most prosperous in the world, wealthy merchants, patrons, and artists concentrated their spending in smaller town houses rather than expansive country estates. Often with quite humble elevations, these homes have become the city’s most loved art institutions. In most cases, you still have to ring the doorbell. Unable to expand beyond a scheme of small, interconnecting spaces, exhibitions rarely have more than four objects per room. The result: a distillation of a theme experienced with delicate intimacy.
What’s the best way to get a taste of Melbourne? You compare it to Sydney. This approach is great because it works even if you’ve never been to either city. Before choosing my baptismal Australian abode, whiffs of rivalry between the country’s two major hubs abounded. My list of necessities at the time was clear and satisfactorily close-minded – I wanted beaches, fitness vibes, beaches, sun, heat, and nice beaches. A quick google image search of Melbourne and Sydney left me convinced – Melbourne had no beaches (in the pictures that popped up anyway. I would later discover that Victoria does indeed have beaches). Sydney was the city I would thrive in, and Bondi was where I would plant my roots/beach towel.
[pullquote]If you can match yourself with even one piece of what you feel a city’s culture can offer – attach and commit yourself to it, and allow that connection to grow into a passion, maybe even a skill.[/pullquote] The comparison is inevitable. It is rampant. Many online forums claim that the two cities are very similar (…to be elaborated). Of course, wisdom tells us that it is our personal experience while living in a particular city, not the physicality and cultural offerings of the city itself, which will define…well, our experience of life in that city. Which is true to a certain extent. But what I have found fascinating about moving from Sydney to Melbourne (the cultural capital of Australia), is that the only way to really discover, feel and embody a city’s culture is to allow yourself to identify with any aspect of the mixed chaos around you, and build your lifestyle around it. We all create scenarios and craft ideals of certain places in our minds. If you can match yourself with even one piece of what you feel a city’s culture can offer – attach and commit yourself to it, and allow that connection to grow into a passion, maybe even a skill. Experience cannot happen without culture, and you need to know what you’re looking for.
Beyond the museums and galleries, I hope to explore that other aspect of culture which every city holds, whether that lies in coffee shops or backpacked beaches, activewear or second-hand grunge clothing, in a city which gains its light from either sea or sky. Culture will craft you – if you allow it.
In Japan, Tokyo has always taken the biscuit when it comes to the art scene. It overshadows Kyoto’s old-Japan appeal with its list of contemporary art museums. There are, however some gems to be discovered in the old capital, behind the temples and cherry blossoms and kimono-clad tourists. It did take me some months to find them.
For my first few months here I stuck to the big national museums that appeal to Kyoto newbies with the draw of big names. It is exactly so at the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at Kahitsukan, Kyoto Museum of Contemporary Art. Though loaded with the French photographers candid 35mm shots, for someone who finds slow walkers a personal affront to their independence, it is sucked dry of any enjoyment. Going to an art museum in Kyoto is bit like being a conveyor belt piece of sushi. You queue round the exhibition at an agonisingly slow pace, neither able to skip nor loiter for fear that, even at 5‘5“, you are going to be in someone’s way.
Fortunately, I found the Imura Gallery just this month, located north of the city, not far from the Kamagawa river. The space is tiny, just rectangular box with one wall completely glass, facing the street. The gallery was hosting a fringe exhibition of the Kyotographie festival. Its an annual photography festival spread over April and May, similar in its execution to Dublin’s PhotoIreland. The Imura Gallery was hosting the Korean artist Lee Min-ho (who unfortunately shares her name with one of Korea’s biggest idols.. ). This series ‘Fil rouge/ Fil Blanc’ featured superimposed balls of wool on photographs that look like paintings.paintings that look like photographs. Despite the compositions’ soft colouring it was very surreal, especially with the glare of light causing the passing traffic to be reflected over the work too; a nice though accidental effect, I thought.
Feature image source: credit Anna D’Alton & Deirdre McAteer