Mousse is a bimonthly magazine published in Italian and English. Established in 2006, Mousse contains interviews, conversations, and essays by some of the most important figures in international criticism and curation, alternated with a series of distinctive columns in a unique tabloid format.
The objects of Italian artist Alessandro Agudio (b. 1982) echo the splendor of Milan’s 1980s yuppie homes but aim to remain anchored to the city’s northern province, the Brianza, known for factories that produce furniture for the average person. Art objects are commodities and need to remain frivolous—that is, bitterly beautiful. Hence the boyish irony of Agudio’s titles, hence the allusions to sport, the cryptic details that complicate the narrative. In the following interview, Agudio speaks of family-run fitness clubs, exhausted art objects, wooden spaceships, and why Brianza is exotic, alien and melancholic, like Brazil.
ISABELLA ZAMBONI: I am intrigued by your allusions to the world of fitness, of sport, of wellness associated with the body. Many of your works—the latest ones presented at Fanta-MLN, for example—either appropriate gymnastic equipment, or they are sculptures that allude to the body and its functions or its relief—like the urinal Un Angolo (Tipo Vespasiano) (2018).
ALESSANDRO AGUDIO: I think I started contaminating my work with these elements in a somewhat unconscious manner. At the age of eighteen, I began working in fitness clubs, teaching stretching classes while I was still attending art school: I never imagined that this imagery would become so important for me. The nice thing is that I have always worked in gyms unlike Virgin or Getfit, which are franchises that feature a standardized “elegant” environment. I have always worked in family-run gyms. One in particular, in Milan, was furnished in a totally crazy way; the layout, the plan of the gym, had gradually developed over the years until it became a kind of maze. The reception was decked out with personal, newly received gifts. The experience, I realized, had already combined my interest in furnishings and my interest in sport and its connection with the body.
IZ: In these family-run concerns that you describe, I fully imagine how palpable the effort of appearing dignified, super-clean, must be. At the same time, though, one may perceive a bitter, somewhat unfortunate sensation, the same narrative coordinates that I find in your objects—streamlined but somehow melancholic.
AA: You are perfectly right, you always notice a certain dilettantism behind this effort. The furniture in these gyms is made of nothing, of hurriedly painted plywood. An interesting form of chaos is added to the family-run concerns, a form of customization, an expressive desire that you don’t really find in the big chains.
IZ: Hence this veneer of dignity often conceals a somewhat less noble nature. I read the phrase with which you often comment on your works, “a sophisticated facade.” I wonder, though, whether the sophistication should be defined in terms of materials, in the workmanship. In your works, I do find briar-root laminate surfaces that imitate “rich” furniture, a mere “facade.” However I am wondering if laminate today may still be considered a “poor” artistic material and, besides, I find that the objects reveal a certain narrative complexity through several, not immediately decipherable visual and verbal details—literary titles and elaborate material features that complicate the process of signification.
AA: I am happy to hear you say that. Yes indeed, they are not simple. The construction of the object is very labored. The concept at the basis is often an invention that I would define as “baroque,” yet something I desperately try to weaken in the final, formal formulation: in this sense, they lack sophistication. It is only a facade, or rather a pose to be good enough for the event in which they are staged.
IZ: If I think of them as furnishing elements, then I am better able to follow your line of thought, less so if I think of them as art objects.
AA: I know what you mean, but I don’t conceive them as objects of art; rather (as in some more specific cases, a lamp or a flowerpot) I already conceive it, how do you say, in its spent, exhausted form, which is easy to imagine as a piece of domestic furniture. I already think of its demise. This is my sadness, a sadness that I force upon myself: to build an object, done and finished, ready to play its role, which is that of being material, of being a commodity. For this reason, my desire to make it outwardly pleasant is not self-gratification, but it is my way of overcoming my unease and embarrassment in placing it on show as an art object. In this way, I mask myself a bit. The unease is also ironic. “Here you have another masterpiece.”
IZ: I am intrigued by your references to the exotic. You often speak of a “pseudo-South American Brianza.” In the exotic, I believe, one feels a desire for strangeness, with the relief of a sense of being exposed only to a risk but not to a real threat of danger. A sort of surrogate of an engagement, of an exchange, of a responsibility. I was wondering if you may see this as connected to the province—the Brianza—or to the art status of the art object we were talking about.
AA: Indeed, the fascination of the exotic. I connect it to the idea of an artistic artifact, which has the charm of appearing strange, freak, or alien. In the series titled One of the Most Famous Wooden Spaceships on a Brazilian Beach, I was metaphorically thinking about a work of art in an art gallery as an alien form made of wood on a beach. It is the melancholic image of a failed attempt to escape. It’s a spaceship, it should be an alien form, but it is made of wood, hence something familiar, which lies on a Brazilian beach: it is an image that works because there are not many contrasts. In Brianza there are many of these spaceships: villas, single-family homes, fountains, and monuments on roundabouts. All kinds of architects and artists have been busy there! In his novel La Cognizione del dolore (The experience of pain, 1963), Carlo Emilio Gadda describes very well this kind of environment, masked with South American names.
IZ: So, more than a deliberate lack of engagement, yours is a story of defeat, of a disabled redemption. One work in particular alludes to the exotic in terms of suburban slums, Patinatissima Tipo Favela (Sleek Like a Slum)
AA: Yes, some of my titles refer to this shade of meaning. Something that is outwardly slick but that in actual fact is brash and tacky. Like the kid’s scooters in Brianza: super customized, pimped up, full of color. I was born in and arose out of this context, in no way elegant… For a while I suffered from performance anxiety which I then used to good effect, putting it into my work. Mine is an attempt to maintain the balance between this unsophisticated artifact, at times verging on the gaudy, and its surface finish that seeks sophistication but which, to me, does not attain it.
IZ: Can you tell us about your future projects?
AA: I am currently managing to free myself from all this, from interior design. Here in Berlin I was very impressed by the children’s playgrounds. Rather than towards objects, my work is heading towards the body. Objects always have a relationship with the body, but now in my recent work this relationship is even clearer.
Il Vespasiano (Urinal) that was put on show at Fanta-MLN was, I believe, the beginning of this connection to the body. I am now doing a “vespasiano” still more or less following the same logic but in a rather monumental, freestanding fashion, for a project celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Giovanardi S.p.a., a “point of purchase” company located in the middle of Brianza. The project is curated by Marco Tagliafierro who has always been interested in the relation between art and manufacture. The title was created before the sculpture: Tipo Vespasiano Is the Metaphoric Veneer of a Semi-Performative Aesthetic Invention. Another brash and tacky item, an object that is struggling to perform its function.
Alessandro Agudio (b. 1982, Milan; lives in Berlin). His practice comprises sculptures and installations that explore the concept of “lifestyle.” His works draw from the legacy of design, through artifacts that could potentially be assimilated within the domestic environment, yet conceived to overturn its perception. Concentrating on the surface of objects, he favors plastic laminates, fabrics, and mirrors, for their faculty to reference immateriality and to condense sociocultural values. His work has been shown at Centre d’art Neuchâtel; 16th Quadriennale – Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome; American Medium, Grand Century, New York; 1m3, Lausanne; La Triennale di Milano, Fluxia, Marsèlleria, Gasconade, Plus Design, GAM, Milan; and Casa Masaccio, Arezzo.
Isabella Zamboni (b. 1985) is publishing editor at Mousse Publishing.
For the past decade, Los Angeles–based artist Candice Lin has investigated the cultures and histories embedded in objects and materials related to colonial trade, alternative healing practices, and bodily functions. These include tobacco, urine, and tea as well as live insects and dead animals—in other words, things that carry stranger textures, more pungent scents, and heavier burdens than typical art materials. She is also a skilled and endlessly curious craftsperson who transforms these things and the stories they tell into artworks that mobilize critical issues such as race, gender, and trauma in unconventional ways.
This approach has led to some wild combinations in recent years, including dozens of baby mice preserved in a glass jar filled with alcohol and dried wheat (Recipe for Spontaneous Generation: Baby Mice ), a giant papier-mâché model of an ant’s head sheltering some bright pink sheepskin rugs and fungus tea (You Are a Parasite ), and a hexagonal terrarium filled with live Madagascan hissing cockroaches, fed on candied fruit and a sugar-paste replica of a Chinese porcelain vase (A Warner for Survivalists: White Gold ). It has also resulted in some significant installations commissioned for solo exhibitions at Gasworks in London (A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour ) and Bétonsalon in Paris (A Hard White Body / Un corps blanc exquis ), both of which have informed the development of her current show, Meaningless Squiggles, at François Ghebaly gallery in Los Angeles. Considered together, all three exhibitions have included “systems” channeling different kinds of fluids: fermented and cochineal-dyed tea approximating blood in London; collectivized urine moistening unfired porcelain in Paris; and sugar, poppy, tobacco and yet more urine being distilled in Los Angeles. In each case, raw materials have been made to undergo DIY processes of alchemical transformation, causing the shows themselves to change materially over time.
In Meaningless Squiggles, a glass distillation jar is placed on the stomach of a silhouette, made from tobacco leaves, of the Charada China: a human figure in symbol-covered robes used as a system of dream interpretation for gambling in Chinese Cuban culture. Various other objects are scattered on top, including clay meat tenderizers, drawings of cats, bottles of herbs, seeds from poisonous plants, and opium-pod putty, making it seem like some kind of ritual or ceremony is taking place. The distillate slowly drips into a bucket via a hole cut through both the figure’s belly and the cement-filled, knee-high metal table on which it is placed. From here it is pumped through clear rubber tubing up the gallery walls and along a narrow corridor lit with fluorescent pink light. The end of the corridor is blocked by a wall of fake rocks and dirt, from which a poem by writer Renee Gladman emanates, reflecting on the “will” of the materials contained in the distillate that slowly trickles by. Exiting the hallway through a salvaged side door, a large but low, white-tiled pedestal occupies another bright gallery that is also cut off at the far end by a makeshift sheetrock barrier. There is razor wire on top; a metal gate welded to the shape of two eyes; and some symbols cut out from the cladding, based on Lin’s father’s calligraphy of a Google translation of “meaningless squiggles.” The phrase, which gives the exhibition its title, comes from philosopher John Searle’s 1980 essay “Minds, Brains, and Programs,” in which what he considers to be the inscrutability of the Chinese language is used to question what qualifies as a human level of sentience or consciousness.
As with Lin’s previous “systems,” the material processes taking place here are relatively simple in themselves, and yet the connotations they carry and the context in which they occur make them pleasantly baffling in their complexity. It is curious to note, for example, how processes such as distillation or rituals come to imply aggregation rather than purification, or the accumulation of burdens rather than the ability to leave them behind. As the clear distillate finally disappears down the drain in the middle of the white-tiled pedestal, it is as though the lifeblood of the Charada China—or the trauma of the cultural displacement that led to its rebirth as a Chinese Cuban symbol of luck—is literally being siphoned off. As in much of Lin’s work, this blend of mystery, uncertainty, and material possibility is both captivating and discomforting in roughly equal measure.
Candice Lin is an interdisciplinary artist who works with installation, drawing, video, and living materials and processes, such as mold, mushrooms, bacteria, fermentation, and stains. She received her MFA in New Genres at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2004 and her double BA in Visual Arts and Art Semiotics at Brown University in 2001. Recent solo exhibitions include the exhibition cycle A Hard White Body at Bétonsalon, Paris; Portikus, Frankfurt am Main; and the Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, as well as solo exhibitions at Gasworks, London; 18th Street Art Center, Los Angeles; and Human Resources, Los Angeles. Her work is currently on view in group shows around the world including Para Site, Hong Kong; ICA London; Ballroom Marfa and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Lin has been included in prominent recent group exhibitions including the 2018 Taipei Biennale; the 2018 Athens Biennale; Made in L.A. 2018, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; New Museum, New York; Sharjah Biennial 2017, Beirut; and SculptureCenter, New York. She is the recipient of several residencies, grants and fellowships, including the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award (2017), the Davidoff Art Residency (2018) and Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2009). In 2018 she was appointed to the faculty of the University of California Los Angeles Department of Art.
Robert Leckie is director of Spike Island in Bristol. He was previously curator and head of programs at Gasworks in London, where he led the exhibitions, residencies, and public programs from 2011 to 2018. He has written for Afterall, Rhizome, and Benedictions, among other publications, and is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, Goldsmiths, and the University of the Arts in London. He curated Candice Lin’s solo exhibition A Body Reduced to Brilliant Colour at Gasworks in 2016.
The biggest piece in Ryan Gander’s show Some Other Life at Esther Schipper in Berlin is also the smallest. Big, if you count the exposure it got on social media. It is a tiny animatronic mouse whose head protrudes from a hole in the wall, and in spite of its littleness, it makes the strongest aesthetic statement.
Ryan Gander’s second solo exhibition at Esther Schipper’s Berlin gallery turns the space into, well, a gray cube. With no artificial lighting except for the skylight, the gallery is unusually dark. The eyes need a moment to adjust. Some Other Life counts seven pieces in different media, plus eight drawings that function as a coda (or a prelude) to the show. Like a motif, most pieces feature a certain type of gray, the so-called 18 percent gray. It is the mean of all colors that occur in nature, and photographers use it to calibrate exposure. This hue in almost all of the pieces creates a nondescript, aseptic gallery interior.
The visitor is first presented with something that looks akin to a crime scene. Two rugs are half-unrolled on the floor; tire tracks and footprints are shaved into the surface of each of them. The fiber glows dirty white in the half darkness, like snow. Gray cubes, numbered 1 to 24, are strewn across the rugs. The arrangement suggests a narrative, two instances, both of which can only be experienced post hoc, like in a detective novel. The cubes tick like a polyrhythmic symphony, each in its own time. They are all equipped with a battery that lasts forty-eight hours; over this time, the ticking fades. A meditation on entropy, vulnerability, and ultimately mortality, like the entire show. The pieces are each marked with a light cube, numbered, this time, 1 to 7. More cubes lie ready in two cases. In total, there are twenty-four (again), and they can be reused for other exhibitions. The objects create a parcours: before you look at anything else, look at this piece; then you can move on to the miniature sculptures, to the video, to the light box.
Sometimes Gander’s works tell stories of possible worlds. In a niche, gray models of unrealized projects are subtly illuminated; there is a three-dimensional rendition of Paul Gauguin’s chair as painted by Vincent van Gogh (only gray in this version). On the opposite wall, a staircase leads up three steps to the white wall, but there is no door, as if to say, an entrance might well be here, just not for you. This work is titled So I see (So I see, the light is changing constantly, as is your perspective), and it recalls the artist’s Escape Hatch to Culturefield, an inconspicuous hatch well hidden in a park in Kassel, devised for documenta 13 in 2012. Variations of it make an appearance in several shows. “Culturefield is an imaginary place, a dream state where good creative energies lie,” said Gander in a lecture, and “You could get there by jumping the fence at the bottom end of my primary school playing field.”1 And don’t we all have a place like that? While the term “field” has a sociological ring, it also evokes the Elysian fields, the mythological place of blissful oblivion after death.
To say that death looms over this exhibition makes it sound more macabre than it is. For the video work, shown on three perpendicular screens hanging from the ceiling, Gander has imagined his studio in a postapocalyptic world. Not much can be seen except for faint shadows of leaves in the wind. No hint of what his studio looks like, or what the postapocalypse might look like, no hint of a climate catastrophe or nuclear fallout. The future seems very bright and very clean.
Ryan Gander, born in 1976, once said, “If you make enough work with enough diversity, you can make shows from the art. You can self-curate. Recombine. Works are made with the possibility of recombination into interesting shows.” For documenta 13, Gander left a space at the Fridericianum empty except for the wind created by a machine. For adidas, he has designed a sneaker; he wrote a children’s book; he has created sculptures for public space and for the gallery. Some of the work he did under pseudonyms. Gander creates output so diverse that it sometimes is impossible to tell if you are seeing a show by the British artist or a well-curated group show. But this time, it is different.
The objects all invite calm observation. Only one commands immediate attention. It is the mouse, stringing phrases together: “of course, in one sense, well,” and stuttering in a high-pitched voice. Its tiny mechanical face moves, as if struggling to return the viewers’ gaze, from the debris of a hole nibbled into the wall. It speaks with the voice of Gander’s nine-year-old daughter. Small, helpless, childlike, failing at enunciating—you feel the mouse has something important to say, but it just won’t come out. This final piece makes the strongest aesthetic statement: Because, to properly see it, viewers have to stoop, and it actively appeals to them. As if endowed with animated personhood, it demands empathy. And it is cute.
“Cute” is a very hazy aesthetic category, one that emerges from commodified mass culture. Gander is no stranger to the commercial realm. He is familiar with allegedly minor aesthetic categories—the soft categories, beyond “beautiful” or “sublime.” I… I… I… (2019) fits that category. The stuttering animal is not self-sufficient, like the other pieces; it does not exude coolness, like the gray cubes and the dirty white rugs. The mouse is antiheroic—unlike the many talking mice in the Disneyfied bestiary of popular culture. But it also hints at a pastoral prehistory when animals talked, a prelapsarian state before the loss of innocence. But it is out of reach, very much like the thing the animatronic mouse tries to communicate, on the other side of the wall, and possibly like the Elysian realm of Culturefield.
Sure, cuteness has been a part of commodity aesthetics since the industrial age. Gander knows that the same old magic tricks still work. This last piece in the show is an antithesis to heroic art, which tries to reboot the Kantian aesthetic of sheer force, either as overwhelming data-based pieces that want to teach about the digital age, or as the sublime updated for the age of climate change. Gander, on the contrary, has chosen to make the very little the star of his show.
 Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh, “Definitely Unfinished: Welcome to Culturefield”, CUTUREFIELD (London: Walther König, 2014), 543.
Shadi Habib Allah’s artistic production traverses a spectrum of media, including sculpture, drawing, film, and installation. The materiality of the works is determined on a project-to-project basis, participating in a dialogue motivated by research, illustrated by material, and activated by viewers. The works are defined by physical engagement, and unified in their desire to suggest modes of navigation across disparate networks of people, places, objects, images, technologies, and economies. This comes with a view to examining, deconstructing, and understanding the structures of these networks, identifying signifiers of value and use within them.
In his video Dag’aa (2015), Habib Allah deconstructs a landscape and experience often overlooked. Filmed in areas south of the Egyptian tourist destinations Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab, it documents the activities of people in remote areas of the Sinai Peninsula, primarily militarized zones. The area is utilized by (and home to) Bedouin peoples, some engaged in smuggling operations, which the artist considers a by-product of the Egyptian government’s reticence to engage with these nomadic people and its continued exploitation of what are traditionally Bedouin territories. During the initial filming, Habib traveled with and between Bedouin groups, moving from the southern area of the peninsula farther into remoter regions of the Sinai desert. With works like this, it can be challenging to illustrate the sheer scale of the subject matter. Before consideration is given to critical context, discursive properties, or semiotic language, perspective must be established on the vastness of what Habib Allah is filming and experiencing. His juxtaposition of shots—moving quickly from subtitled discussions, rapid movements, and driving across open desert to a singular man lying down or scrambling up a rock face—illustrates the duality of life in this unique environment. When it’s quiet, it’s a thick, heavy quiet—a hot quiet that appears to sit on top of the people and push time to its slowest movement. As viewers, we can almost picture the sun slowly crossing the sky as the immense landscape stretches before us—an infinite potential muffled by an uncompromising environment. When silence is broken, it’s shattered. The sound of an approaching vehicle is cranked to deafening volume, an artistic device focused on emphasizing the potential the vehicle represents in this context, but also in a way that one can imagine actually happening. Habib Allah mixes synthesizers with these sounds, industrial audio pushing the intensity that he creates in the work. Dag’aa conveys a sense of vastness, of potential, offering a perspective on the lifestyle of the Bedouin people as well as their relation to encroaching government and industrial powers. Habib Allah’s current solo presentation at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Glasgow, Free Rein, explores how citizens in different areas adapt to changes in government- administered social welfare policies. This work is inspired in part by the embryonic counter-economies developing independently in response to austerity and the proliferation of corporate-managed chains and franchises. With particular attention given to this idea as it relates to the corner shop, Habib took influence from changes in policy that resulted in food scarcity in Miami—particularly Liberty City, where he used to live. The exhibition as a whole comes from dual perspectives in terms of social theory and lived experience. Although influenced by the alternative economies established in Liberty City, including the exchange of food stamps and welfare cards for cash, it echoes the experience in cityscapes worldwide. As austerity tightens its grip on communities and lumbering bureaucratic institutions lack the ability, let alone the inclination, to react effectively, these sub-economies develop naturally in response to the inherent violence of enforced poverty. Poor market regulation and institutional apathy toward communities most impacted will always lead to the establishment of new, alternative means of survival.
A new series of sculptures, Measured Volume (2018), illustrates this effectively. In Glasgow, as in New York, as in London, as in Miami, the image of the local shop that doesn’t really seem to sell anything in particular is ubiquitous. Consisting of hollow plastic grocery wrappings arranged as though full and freshly delivered, Habib Allah echoes the absence of produce, the absence of commerce as it is usually defined. When entering one of these stores, we become conscious of a different experience, defined by different social markers and practices.
Shadi Habib Allah (b. 1977, Jerusalem) lives and works in Miami and Palestine. His solo and group exhibitions include Free Reign, CAC Glasgow, (2019); Hammer Projects, Ham- mer, Los Angeles (2018); Put to Rights, The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2018); 74 million million million tons, Sculpture Center, New York (2018); Sharjah Biennial 13, Sharjah (2017); I can call this progress to halt, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Los Angeles (2017); House of Commons, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main (2016); 30KG Shine, Rodeo, Lon- don (2015); New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York (2015); Frozen Lakes, Artists Space, New York (2013); Caravan, Maraya Art Centre, Sharjah (2011); 3rd Riwaq Biennale, Ramallah (2009); Pales-tine c/o Venice, Venice Biennale, Venice (2009); In Focus, Tate Modern, London (2007).
Allan Gardner is an artist and writer currently based in London. He studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art, London. His work is concerned with a coalescence between practice and theory, considering the semiotic qualities of artworks in conjunction with their presence within a contemporary societal context on both an individual and a global level.
Refusing exclusion, eighty-year-old Situationist Jacqueline de Jong holds onto the avant-garde. Post-1968 and post-internet, her agonistic understanding of artistic and political practice is still urgent. In times of crisis, the artist and thinker détourns time itself and enables an anachronistic worldview of alliances between fields and disciplines.
The last time I met Jacqueline de Jong was at the opening of The Most Dangerous Game at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin last year. Highlighting the legacy of Guy Debord and his library of pamphlets, journals, and correspondence, the exhibition was curated according to Debord’s exclusion of visual arts and artists from the Situationist International from 1962 onward. Throughout the exhibition, curved vitrines containing fifty years of textual matter traced the heyday of the Situationist era (1957-1972). Struggling to read the small letters through the light-reflecting vitrines, I bumped into de Jong. Soon they’ll invite her to say something, I thought. She was the only person from the movement present in the gallery, and I was curious to hear her account. I waited in vain. De Jong was not presented. Neither was she asked to introduce the part of the exhibition she had authored, the English-language Situationist Times (ST).
I had to return to Sweden and to the exhibition The Situationist Times: Same Player Shoots Again! at Malmö Konsthall (2018-2019) to get a proper introduction to her oeuvre, including her contribution to the Situationist International, the experimental editorial practice behind ST, and her career as an autodidact painter.
What’s distinctive about de Jong is her insistence. Indifferent to the changing movements around her and to the structural overlooking of women members of the Situationist International, she has continued to paint; at the age of eighty, she is still active. In February she opened the exhibition Pinball Wizard: The Work and Life of Jacqueline de Jong at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Giving an account of de Jong’s legacy as an artist and a thinker, the exhibition includes the beginning of her career at the very same museum (1958-1960). As an assistant in the applied arts section, she met Asger Jorn, who would become her companion for a decade. He introduced her to the Situationist International, a movement she would follow longer than any lover.
At the age of nineteen, de Jong joined a council meeting as a listener and soon became an active member. Simultaneously, conflict in the movement was growing, ending with the exclusion of the German group SPUR in 1962 and later of de Jong herself. She had proposed an English language version of the text-heavy International Situationist (IS) but decided to reformulate its editorial aim, changing it to “a platform to respond to the eviction of the artists”1 and moving the journal away from the theoretical discourses that dominated IS.
ST2 was born out of the urge to include experimental matters by artists and as art. Everyone “who develops theoretically or practically this new unity is automatically a member of the Situationist International,” argued de Jong, refusing to outline any programmatic or theoretical statement about her journal. Readers had to draw “their own conclusions.”3 This is exactly the development that Debord stopped in 1962, putting an end to what is often called “the last avant-garde.” For these reasons, retrospectives such as the Stedelijk’s are important, showing de Jong’s highly innovative expressionist painting and writing and also depicting her as a political thinker. The avant-garde is not history but a clearly present fact.
Six issues of ST were published; the journal ended with the breakup of de Jong and Jorn (who had financed it by selling paintings). ST’s editorial practice poses many questions about what a cultural journal could be. Through her topological understanding of two-dimensional printed matter, de Jong enabled dialogues between institutionalized fields. Perhaps disagreements between fields is a better way to put it, as frictions were the main aesthetics of ST. In her essay in the first issue, “Critique on the Political Practice of Détournement,”4 de Jong argues that “Misunderstandings and contradictions are not only of an extreme value but in fact the basis of all art and creation.”5 The essay was a direct response to Debord’s attempt to organize the very anarchic SI by excluding artists. De Jong argued that Debord had thus détourned the movement itself: “The Situationistic notion cannot be on art it is an ideological and elaborative development,” she wrote in a colloquial language where all sentences float into one. According to her it was a paradox to formalize “an organization which has absolutely no rules.”6 The agonism in de Jong’s politics and aesthetics was clear. It still is. The seventh issue of ST—dedicated to the topology of pinball, the machine and the game— was never printed. It is still a collection of editorial fragments, portions of a formless whole. But the process is not on hold; rather, it is up to readers to disorganize the parts as they like. Even a proper ending is détourned by de Jong, and it surely will continue as such.
 Christophe Bourseiller, “Les temps situationniste, entretien avec Jacqueline de Jong”, in Archives et documents situationnistes (Paris: Denoël, 2001), 30. Cited in Karen Kurczynski, “Red Herrings: Eccentric Morphologies in the Situationist Times,” in Expect Anything Fear Nothing: The Situationist Movement in Scandinavia and Elsewhere, ed. Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobsen (Copenhagen: Nebula; New York: Autnomedia, 2011), 131.  See https://monoskop.org/Situationist_Times.
 Kurczynski, 132.
 See https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/digdeeper/critic-political-practice- detournement.
 Kurczynski, 141.
Jacqueline de Jong (b. 1939) was involved in various European avant-garde networks in the 1960s, including the Gruppe SPUR and the politically engaged Situationist International movement. She is revered for founding, editing and publishing The Situationist Times, a magazine that appeared between 1962 and 1967. By now her publishing, painting and sculpture endeavours have spanned over five decades, in which motifs of eroticism, desire, violence and humour continue to recur. In her painterly practice she has effortlessly switched between different styles: from expressionist painting to new figuration and pop art. Recent solo exhibitions include Pinball Wizard at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; a retrospective at Musée Les Abattoirs in Toulouse; Same Player Shoots Again! at Malmö Konsthall; Imagination à Rebours at Dürst Britt & Mayhew, Den Haag; and Imaginary Disobedience at Château Shatto in Los Angeles. She was included in recent group exhibitions at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Mendes Wood DM, Brussels; The Club, Tokyo; MAMCO, Genève; Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Kunsthalle Bern; and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles. Work by de Jong is held in private and public collections including Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Cobra Museum for Modern Art, Amstelveen; Museum Arnhem; Museum Jorn, Silkeborg; Lenbachhaus, Munich; Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo; Kunstmuseum Göteborg; MCCA Toronto; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. In 2011 de Jong’s entire archive from the 1960s was acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of the Yale University in New Haven. On 18 March 2019 she has been awarded the Prix AWARE for Outstanding Merit at the Ministry for Culture in Paris, France.
Frida Sandström is a writer, critic, and a contributing editor of Paletten Art Journal. She is a frequent contributor to Swedish cultural journals and magazines and a visiting lecturer in art theory at Umeå Art Academy. Together with choreographer Kasia Wólinska, Sandström runs the interdisciplinary research project “The Future Body at Work.”
Non-Western abstract art is among the most vulnerable genres when it comes to market logic. Having launched without a long history of formal self-inquisition, it floats free of aesthetic ballast while connoting erudition and class. This article explores the formalism of contemporary Chinese abstraction via the case of Wang Guangle’s recent exhibition at Pace Gallery, New York. I suggest two new conjectures: what Wang defines his art against (namely, the specter of Socialist art), and its conceptualism.
In the afterword of Lenin’s Kisses (2004), the avant-garde mytho-realist novel by Yan Lianke, the author accuses: “Since Lu Xun, since May Fourth, realism has changed… It is they [realist works] that raped the arts. It is they that raped literature. It is they that raped the once noble Realism… Realism became the people’s whores.”1 What Yan identifies is the usurpation of realist techniques by the propaganda machine of the country’s de facto capitalistic present. He sees it as devoid of any truth-telling that motivated it in the first place, and driven by venal interest—hence the metaphor of raping and whoring.
Strangely, this reality is an effective context against which contemporary Chinese abstract art could be analyzed, given how the artists grow up and are trained. Have we entertained the possibility that form—that one thing a canvas is left with in absence of any referent to the real—is not the first thing that occupies a non-Western abstractionist’s mind?
This February, Pace Gallery in New York presented fourteen new acrylic works on canvas by Wang Guangle. Towering and serenely auratic, they featured nothing but one color graduating to another from the edge to the center. Coincidentally or not, these paintings fit formalist critique like a hand in a glove. First, there is “time.” Multilayered and titled by their finish dates, the paintings are unfailingly interpreted as “markers of time,” an amicable idea to U.S. audiences accustomed since Jackson Pollock to seeing a canvas as an index for process. Then, as subdued luminosity emanates from the painting’s central void, there is also “spirituality,” traceable to the stone age of Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. And of course there is the Minimalist conceit of “object- hood,” as the thick canvas also looks like a lacquered “thing.”
All these are true, but in the Euro-U.S. tradition, terms like “time” and “spirituality” are ballasted by Western twentieth-century art. In contrast, Wang and his peers are educationally ballasted by the Cold War opponent of abstraction: realism. Wang tends to cast his formative influences of the 1990s in two ways: “New or Old.” The “Old” stands for his training in Soviet-influenced realism, and the “New” is anything that provides an escape out of that. For his 2000 graduation thesis he submitted paintings that, despite their imagery, were declined on the grounds of being “too abstract.” His moody representation of a dimly sunlit floor was more sentimental than abstract, but even private indulgence bespoke a retreat from the ideological mandate: that year, migrant workers flooded the city and students were directed to paint “the people.”
The lacerating tension between the two worlds—Socialist aesthetics willing the future into the present, and everything else allowing truthful expression of the present—drove some of Wang’s best creations. Despite his growing austerity, form (color, line, shape, et cetera) was neither a predominant concern nor a ready intellectual subject. Its principal function was to proffer a spatiotemporal pocket outside of the wormhole called “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In 2004, Wang painted an entire studio wall in his then-signature pattern: terrazzo. Once a symbol of dazed youth in his thesis, the motif had by then claimed conceptual heft: his month-long labor of dotting and tracing the stones was as monotonous as it was pointless, given his knowledge that the studio was to be razed shortly after.
The terrazzo mural gave way to a building spree just like the thin ice formed by Song Dong’s breath on wintry Tiananmen Square gave way to sunrise in Breathing, Tiananmen Square (1996): awareness of an individual’s futility constituted one of the few conceptual gestures that truly reverberated with the people’s condition. The same year, Wang began his defining series: coffin paint. His hometown folks, when sensing death, would prepare a coffin and paint it anew each year. Despite its sensational title, the ritualistically performative dimension of the practice indeed affirmed the principal logic of Wang’s paintings. In fact, it served as a template for the method he pursues to this day: paint, wait, paint, wait. But the Fujian vernacular was much richer than the highbrow art method. The Chinese word for coffin paint literally meant “longevity lacquering,” as, somewhat counterintuitively, brushing your own coffin supposedly beckons longevity. When I began to inquire as to the number of years people typically enact the ritual, I realized it was a stupid question: How could you standardize when people begin to feel death nearing? Yet when translated into a stringent painting method, the layering practice seemed to resonate with the capitalistic logic of iterative production that few artists could avoid.
Yan’s novel begins with a big midsummer snow. The “hot snow” imagery recurs in my mind as I ponder Wang: if Western formalist critique develops along a steadily progressing modernism, the cultural temporality of China is sloshed around in the maelstrom of anti-, post-, and para-modernity. This article can only begin to parse out the context—will somebody join the fray so I can live to see a sufficient critique one day?
 Yan Lianke, Shenyang Shi: Chun feng wen yi chu ban she (Shenyang: Chunfeng Wenyi, 2004), 207–208. Author’s translation.
Wang Guangle (b. 1976, Fujian) is a Chinese painter based in Beijing. He received a BFA in oil painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 2000. Mostly known for his abstract style, he has had five solo exhibitions and has participated in nearly eighty group shows. His most renowned series include Terrazzo (2002– ongoing), Coffin Paint (2004–ongoing), and Untitled (2004–ongoing).
Tianyuan Deng (Ti Ti), originally from Shanghai, is a New York–based art critic and PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts. She researches the history and theory of the avant-garde in China. Her criticism of contemporary Chinese art also appears in Art Agenda and Artforum China. Her translation of Thomas Crow’s The Rise of Sixties: American and European Art in the Age of Dissent (Yale University Press, 2005) is forthcoming in 2020.
The new digital technologies, and what they imply in terms of alienation and narrative disruption, are the most important challenge of our time. Our pharmakon, as Jacques Derrida called it in his interpretation of the condemnation of writing in Plato’s Phaedrus: both our poison and our remedy.
Drowning in a Sea of Data, a group exhibition curated by João Laia at La Casa Encendida in Madrid, analyzes the role of technologies in the accelerated flow of information, the new visual paradigm, and the state of anxiety that these factors inevitably cause. The show offers a reflection on our “algorithmic governmentality,” as defined by Bernard Stiegler, which seems to control us and whose temporal regime is the distorted reflection of a socioeconomic system fascinated by productivity and efficiency.
It is not a surprise that the most photographed work in the show is Evan Ifekoya’s Ritual Without Belief (2018), a giant, enveloping wave that seems about to explode —a metaphor for that sense of confinement, that informational tsunami, that impotence of desire and perception we feel when facing the elusive dictatorship of automated responses, the economy of big data, and computational capitalism. I don’t know if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, as Mark Fisher says in the first chapter of Capitalist Realism.1 But what does seem certain is that the religion of consumerist capitalism imposes an apocalyptic temporality. That is a “state of exception made normal,”2 as Giorgio Agamben calls it, whose “white eschatology,” with no redemption or judgment, is formed by a succession of insignificant catastrophes and cyclical crises.
The religious comparison is not arbitrary as many critics and philosophers defend today a return to a sort of precapitalistic vision of time, close to the classical vita contemplativa, whose logic of use, nonproductive expenditure, or boredom could short-circuit the “constant flow of sugary gratification on demand”3 in which we live.
On Kawara’s works, Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Ignasi Aballí’s Time as Inactivity (2014), or Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993), for example, impose the limits of an incompressible and essential duration that cannot be reduced to calculation or benefit. Agamben speaks of the landscape as the “inappropriable” that would allow us to escape from the measurable and the effective, from the world as property. We think about Ragnar Kjartansson’s recent Figures in Landscape (2019), a series of seven different archetypal landscapes, resembling desktop screen savers but hand-painted like film sets, each twenty-four hours long, that the viewer would take an entire week to view in the work’s entirety. Or Iván Argote’s A Point of View (2019), a stairway in the middle of the Coachella Valley, whose sole purpose is to offer a point of view on the surrounding landscape, opening a reflection on the anthropological gaze, mediality, and contemplation.
But when everything happens so fast, when the totality is always available, it seems that nothing really occurs, that we live in a suspended state, without referents, in which “time is out of joint” and we “no longer know whether we are objects or subjects as we spiral down in an imperceptible free fall,” as Hito Steyerl explains.4
Without external referents, constant acceleration has the same effect as the usual gravity on Earth, says the theory of relativity, and high speed can stop time, as shown in Andrea Galvani’s The End [Action #5] (2015): this video, recorded from a military aircraft flying at supersonic speed in a direction opposite to the Earth’s rotation, suspends the descending sun over an oceanic horizon, creating a never-ending sunset, a sensation of frozen time.
Perhaps the answer is not so much—or not only—a nostalgic kind of deceleration, which feels like a repressed return to the dichotomist logic of Heidegger’s metaphysics, but a refreshed articulation with that new pharmakon that screens, algorithms, and the infinite, permanent connections represent today. In that sense, Byung-Chul Han thinks today’s time crisis is due not to acceleration but rather to what he calls “dyssynchrony,” a temporal dispersion that atomizes time that lacks an ordering rhythm and prevents sustained attention. Confronted with this flow of uninhabitable instants and eternally stored forgetfulness, narrative fiction comes back, as seen in Clément Cogitore’s inspiring works, along with a renewed concept of duration in the visual experience outside the structure of the debtor/addict, as in David Claerbout’s pictorial scenes or in Rinus Van de Velde’s cinematographic drawings.
We also witness the articulation of a new language, whether it’s phonetic and literary, as seen in Nora Turato’s work, or visual, as in the cases of Arthur Jafa, John Akomfrah, and many others. Therefore, the subject imagines an organic bilateral modality of time that tries to overcome the look and rhythm of the Anthropocene, as Pierre Huyghe did in UUmwelt (2018), his latest installation at the Serpentine Galleries, London, presented as a dynamic, interdependent ecosystem in which the different temporal strata—the neuronal glimpse, the lifetime of the flies, or the layers of the sanded-down gallery walls—deconstruct the traditional phenomenological framework. In any case, art must imagine some ways to transform this pharmakon we call digital technologies into a tool for our critical thinking and our moral development, and not let it be only an interface for standardized desires and emotional dependence.
 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009).
 Giorgio Agamben, “Capitalism as Religion,” in Creation and Anarchy: The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019).
 Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 24.
 Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” e-flux 24 (2011), https://www.e-flux.com/ jounal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical- perspective/.
Aurélien Le Genissel is an art critic and independent curator based in Barcelona and Paris. He studied philosophy, journalism, and history. He was the artistic director of the Blueproject Foundation in Barcelona, where he curated solo shows by Wolfgang Laib, Pieter Vermeersch, and José Dávila, among others. He has contributed to several catalogues, including Little Is Left to Tell: Calvino after Calvino (Blueproject Foundation, 2015) and a good neighbour—Stories (Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts–İKSV, 2017), the publication of the 15th Istanbul Biennial. Currently, one of his lines of investigation is the deconstruction of fiction through the persistence of literary language and the grammar of the moving image. He is also exploring new production and exhibition formats as a way to interconnect multiple art scenes in the European context.
Nine fantastic concrete sculptures, in a site-specific installation on the gallery floor, lead to artificial grottos and hidden trolls, along with scattered objects from everyday life and fake rocks and trees: a pathway into the poetic balance between actuality and perception, originality and affectation. Each single work’s caption represents a real, short romance per se, a lyrical travelogue through evocative verses, sampling the stratifications of history upon which the city of Rome has been built and revealing, at the same time, the centrality of planting and displanting to colonialism. With her solo show Romance at Fondazione Memmo in Rome, Latifa Echakhch acts upon collective references, internalizing and enhancing them, exceeding their canonical and aggregating character and investing them with the evocative power of a personalized and intuitive remembrance.
GINEVRA BRIA: Let’s start with some of your older works: L’air du temps (2013), Die Vögel (2013), For each stencil a revolution (2013), La dépossession (2014), Fantômes (2011), Tkaf (2011), and Fantasia (2011) are installations dealing with the disparition en série of natural landmarks and landscapes. How has your narrative idea of paysage manquant evolved over time?
LATIFA ECHAKHCH: I am particularly interested in the exact moment coming after an action or an event, when we have before our eyes some traces which we—as viewers—have to rebuild as a narrative chronology, in order to be able to understand the context, as a kind of detective practice. It’s one of the main tools I use to involve the public, first of all to establish a contemplative ground and then to push it in an active direction. I have to leave viewers with a visual understanding.
GB: In your practice, apparently ordinary objects always turn into transitional, oneiric igniters of daily life: semantic, integral centers of your three-dimensional installations, from Certificate de Vie (2002) to Globus (2007), Stoning (2010), and Skins (2010), among others. How does your relationship with objects and the way you gather and collect them influence your sculptural practice?
LE: Everyday objects have affected me since I’ve been conscious of it in my childhood. This strangeness in the questioning of the world around me pushed me to a multiple reading practice, driving me to become an artist. It’s this particular feeling that I try to look for when I am collecting objects. What I am looking for is absolutely not spectacular, not too exotic, but enough to disturb the meaning landscape of an exhibition. Some of them are a bit like Proust’s madeleine, archaic but discretely powerful. I am like a hunter: sometimes it takes me months to find an object; sometimes I find something completely by chance, and it gives me a euphoric joy. Like the shell-shaped lamp exhibited in Romance: I was hunting for it for months in France, for the exhibition Air du Temps at Centre Pompidou in 2014, because it’s exactly the same as the lamp displayed in my parents’ living room. And then, here in Rome, I found the same lamp in the flea market! It means that my strange little lamp, which drove me to so many contemplative dreams when I was a kid—it’s just an object that was reproduced in a series and is not so singular, not anymore.
GB: After more than fifteen years of your work, how did your personal, speculative bridging between political and historical fields find another spirituality, maybe another meaning, through Snow in Arabia (2003)?
LE: I have in my practice different protocols and temporality in my gestures. It’s like writing an album of music: some pieces are in a slow tempo, some more orchestral, some more loud. I need these different tempos in order not to linger in a too comfortable practice. But in the field of political and historical links, I always take care to not be too frontal, too simplistic—the political context is more complex than that, and my rule as an artist is not to make any obvious politically oriented messages. It’s a question of power and postures. I found deeply suspicious any works that are too direct, too not questionable, too manipulable. I have no other goals but questioning the world around me.
GB: In relation to the brand-new installation presented at Fondazione Memmo, the title of the show—Romance—could represent a sort of allusion to your etymological procedures in sculpting. Why does this single word sound so appropriate to describe your approaches to spaces and to Rome itself?
LE: When I was building this installation, I had to let it go, to let my hand draw curves without thinking too much. In fact, I learned then not to think at all, just to make it [the installation], preserving the most organic gesture possible. Most of the time, in my practice—even if I care to be involved in the making—I avoid the idea of a genius’s process, by introducing accidents, hazard, destruction; even if it’s a little planned, it leaves a lot of uncontrolled results. I find it so beautiful, because it’s surprising and strange, as if it was not my work at all. Thus, when I look at it eventually, I learn so much. My approach was so new this time, it even surprised me, so much. I created these elements directly in the space, but differently than a sculptor would. The maîtres rocailleurs are not artists but real amateurs; most of them are workers specialized in concrete and metal building and techniques developed in the beginning of the twentieth century that create, in a very pre-industrial moment, these forms of natural elements, most of them improvised and handmade, that the only specification have to last in time. They also mostly have to respond topreexisting contexts of parks and buildings, and the elements are like “natural-looking parasites” of the architecture or of the site.
When you look at Rome, everything is so heavy—in a historical way—it has so many layers, like a big, messy paradise of historical architecture that has found its own very amazing and fragile equilibrium. When you look into details, you have all these fake marble painted walls in churches mixed with real ones, fake stones, true amphoras, real antique columns fit into contemporary walls. If you want to add new constructions, you do not have any other choice than to incorporate them into the past ones.
GB: In Romance, could the gigantic plane-tree leaves on the floor enhance not only a decolonizingde-colonial mission specificin front toof your artistic role, but also a poetique de l’étranger, formulating a sort of a clue for a new phase of your personal enquête sociologique? Could you please describe the choice of displacingto displace those narrative and figurative elements?
LE: The history of botany itself is so related to the discovery of territories, and it’s indeed colonialism. The plane-tree species used for the exhibition is the Platanus hispanica; it’s a mix between the Platanus occidentalis and orientalis. This species was cultivated and planted in Europe because its leaves disseminate the least number of seeds possible and do not propagate like other trees. As a controlled and restricted metissage. This is the nonromantic part of the lecture, and it’s not the first thing that we are thinking about when we have a quiet walk in a park. I like the posture of a flaneur, but not the naive actor!
GB: You’ve always been intrigued by the lack of a definitive perception and by the idea that reality is a willed, created thing. Actually, Romance does deal with the analogical element of memory, the idea that there’s no such thing as a true memory, as an artificial nature. And, looking at how this concept has been molded, when you consider that memory is identity, then what does this say about your actual identity? Which role has the self-portraying assumed in your practice (about Les Figures, )?
LE: I can also use other people’s portrayals, but the mental exercise is more useful if it’s applied to myself. It left aside the question of the modèle in art history and its objectalisation, and the power game indeed: the artist is above all and the model as a material of judgment. My own personal story is not that singular, but not a universal one. I am interested in the process of allowing other possible readings of it, dilating it in a very banal mixture of elements. I am absolutely not an example and not a porte drapeau. When I show these banal elements of my memories, I also prove that we can all have the same kind, and that the principle of what we can call my identity has nothing to be targeted as incredibly personal.
GB: Which kind of conceptual liaisons does Romance graft from the historical representations of the Exotic Garden of Monaco, analyzed within the show Le Jardin Mécanique, presented at the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco in Monte Carlo in 2018? On another topic, which kinds of gestures, objects, surfaces, and techniques, drawn from Le Jardin Mécanique research, did you hypostatize into Romance’s sculptures?
LE: The Le Jardin Mécanique projectwas about to deconstruct the mechanism of romanticism in the fake landscape of Monte Carlo, the one set in the Opera Garnier for many plays, the one set in the Jardin Exotique and its collection of Mediterranean cactus and plants, and also the city in itself, which was mainly built for that purpose: the definition of a romantic landscape, but a constructed one. The garden in the rocks of the upper city has several additions of concrete rocks, trees, and elements to improve the natural beauty.
GB: Could you please formulate a message, a thought, introducing Romance to Italian visitors?
LE: Just read the title of the works; one after the other, it’s made this text: The green of the leaves becomes brighter, and suddenly the wind tables all the colors. Turn back to road taken two minutes before. Mud appears to be more and more humid, shoes going deeper every step. Wondering how long it could take until knees. A cloud passes on the last slice of moon, leaving darkness blurring every trunk. Shaking the head and stretching out arms until touching something. Frail branch brush against the back, turn immediately and run away. Until forgetting why. Raising head to the maximum, closing eyes, feeling cold breeze inside the nose. Feet becoming heavier and difficult to move. Shaking arms, lifting a knee then the other. Make two steps and then turn to the left. Sun appears slightly. The road widens to become a clearing, flat and brown. The head rotates to a perfect ninety-degree angle. Focus on a gray and white pebble, above a lichen, above a curve of a branch, fall. Then turning back. A crack under the foot disturbing the silence, resonating until a breath clears up the atmosphere. Trembling legs move from one step to the other.
GB: Could you please reveal which new projects you are developing for the near future?
LE: My next steps will be in Kunsthalle Mainz in Germany (July 2019) and BPS22 in Charleroi, Belgium (January 2020). These are such different landscapes, more industrial, more thick in terms of socioeconomic aspect, where the ideas of memory will deal with the obsolescence of modernity and its ruins. It’s another kind of romanticism, but maybe it’s just coming back to the roots of it, when the industrial era started to invade the world; then the artists start to question historicity, the blind belief in progress, the melancholic. That’s how the romanticism starts.
The image of the young artist who destroys his paintings —realizing their lack of originality, or at least the absence of a distinctive voice—is one of the most recognizable romantic tropes, even in mainstream narratives, usually preceding an expressive journey dictated by a more genuine creative compulsion. A sort of rite of passage: an initiation in which access to the status of an adult individual presupposes the more or less symbolic destruction of the fruits of juvenile explorations. In the case of the visual artist, it’s maybe useful for the building of a personality, but not suitable as the incipit of a catalogue raisonné.
Liu Ye actually was inspired to burn some of his first near-abstract works influenced by an early meeting with Anselm Kiefer’s work and, more generally, by the exposure to the artistic tenor of Germany of the 1980s.
The Chinese artist arrived in East Berlin precisely in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall; having come to the end of his training course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, he decided not to graduate because it would have involved either becoming a bureaucrat for the government, or (to get out of that) paying an “administrative fee” of ten thousand yuan that his family could barely afford. So he took advantage of documents furnished by a friend, a Western businessman established in China, to get a visa that allowed him to apply to the Universität der Künste Berlin. He arrived in the East portion of the city via a Russian airline and proceeded to the West without understanding the exact nature of the wall that had divided the city into two—years later he declared that he thought it was a city on the border of two separate states because, in his homeland, he had not heard of Germany’s split. For the next four years, which included several trips to various European cities, he encountered the masters of Western art that he had previously only seen in illustrations in books, and also discovered new ones not included in his stringent Chinese study programs.
To destroy one’s earlier work implies a projection into the future, the identification of a future path. In Ye’s case, a very definite personal canon was generated around recurring figures and references: northern European Renaissance painting, Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian, Balthus, Giorgio Morandi, and the Dutch illustrator Dick Bruna, inventor of the character Miffy, the bunny protagonist of a series of best-selling illustrated children’s books. These references are sometimes implicit; others appear in person on the canvas. Andy Warhol is portrayed in Atelier (1991) next to the canonical image of Mao Zedong, the matrix of a well-known cycle by the artist. The geometries of Mondrian appear as paintings within the paintings, which evolved into three-dimensional color compositions in the late 2000s. Miffy, also is a recurring character.
Liu Ye’s production, viewed chronologically, has been a continuous reconfiguration and dialogue between figuration and thematic allusions in a tight intertextual dialogue. Fredric Jameson, in a series of lectures at the universities of Peking and Shenzen, popularized the idea of postmodernism influencing Chinese culture, but at the time the painter, despite having heard of the term, was too young to be fully familiar with the possible artistic ramifications of contemporary theoretical Western analysis. His deployment of citations and internal references is probably more due to his great passion and curiosity regarding Western culture—timidly transmitted by his father, who had access to books and records banned during the Cultural Revolution—and the rejection of the realism that was mandatory during his formative years. Reading also, both in the form of quotations from fairy tales and as representations of books, is a recurrent subjects in Ye’s work: reading or contemplation as the very object of representation. It is as if the many images, references, and models coveted during his adolescence and encountered during that first European journey have sedimented into a progressively more minimal, linear, elegant representation that was— circularly—an object of youthful discovery.
Liu Ye (b. 1964). Lives and works in Beijing. His work combines direct references to the history of art and oblique political connotations to create a charged personal iconography that draws on real and imagined works of art, childhood memories and real-life figures. His work has received great acclaim at several international exhibitions, including the 7th Shanghai Biennale in 2008 and the exhibition China – Facing Reality at the Museum for Modern Art in Vienna.
Francesco Tenaglia (b. 1974) is the editor in chief at Mousse Magazine.