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[Art in December]: Risky Performances, Visceral Videos, and The Works of the Masters

What's out there in museumland.
Dec 4, 2019 | 15:45 Wed
Photos: Angela Leung
In December, thrilling art remains in major museums and institutions. Video art spans risky performances and hyper-surveillance, entire buildings become artistic mediums, and the works of the masters are here to stay (for a little while).



All about physicality and bodily limits, this show brings together a decade of works by performance artist Li Binyuan in videos and photographs of his uncomfortable, dangerous interactions with his environment. Li Binyuan's work unveils environmental and social transformations in the everyday Chinese landscape due to accelerated urbanization.

The first room sets the harsh tone with Breakdown, a series of photographs in which the artist takes a hammer to a brick column while standing over it. In the performance video Long Jump, he jumps in between two cement barricades on opposite sides of a muddy street every time a vehicle passes. It feels like the artist could seriously hurt himself. This sensation is intensified with 2CM, as he stands still, a fingerspan from a giant spinning saw blade, his hair and clothes flapping in the airflow.

In the other room, Li Binyuan tests the limits of his strength against the tenacity of nature. In Drawing Board 100 x 40, he holds a piece of wood against the flow of rushing water from a burst dam. In Testing, he attempts to climb and crack a bamboo tree, again and again, only to fall to the floor. Most performances are inherently dangerous, holding the viewer in anticipation of failure.


Sometimes art is truly fascinating because of its novelty and the artist's obsession with achieving it, no matter how complex and challenging it may be. PSA is showing the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, a celebrated American artist that cut neat holes through the walls of entire buildings as if drawing freely in space.

Matta-Clark was trained as an architect. His work transcends conventional artistic genres, being performative, site-specific, and visual, at the same time. Only a few people have witnessed his process, and, since he intervened in buildings awaiting demolition, the outcomes were not left long for contemplation.

The exhibit is laid out in a timeline, showing how his art evolved. You'll see his early sketches, still containing architectural aspects, and his rejected proposals for interventions, made of cut pieces of black paper applied to photographs of buildings. Later, videos and pictures reveal his process and results. It's a beautiful retrospective showing the determination and eagerness of a revolutionary artist.


With the second most extensive collection of modern art in the world, Centre Pompidou can undoubtedly present a historical perspective for any medium. In a nonlinear maze-like form, this exhibition brings works by pioneering artists in video art and digital imagery, spanning from the early 70s to the present day.

One of the first pieces is the reasonably simple Left Side, Right Side, a close-up video in which Joan Jonas films herself duplicated while experimenting with a small mirror. In the next room, Peter Campus' ghostly Interface projects and reflects the viewer simultaneously in a pane of glass. These two multilayered pieces confuse the viewer on what is reflex or reality, representative of the early works of video art that were centered on mirroring and doubled image.

For Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), Bruce Nauman filmed different angles of his studio for one hour each night for forty-two nights and created a seven-channel installation projected in different colors. Most of the footage is still, with only minor incidents, such as the occasional appearance of cats, mice, and moths. The piece is complemented by nocturnal sounds and by a log with entries such as "cat meow." It's a clear representation of the state of surveillance and total control.

Later on, two disturbing pieces explore the human body. Zhang Peili's Uncertain Pleasure III is made of close-ups of multiple hands scratching different parts of the body. The viewer becomes a voyeur of this intimate and harmful act. In Corps Étranger, Mona Hatoum uses endoscopic footage to exhibit her internal organs and fluids to the sound of her heartbeat. Her biggest challenge with this visceral work was to find a doctor that was willing to cooperate, since most declined for ethical reasons.

Among other remarkable works, you'll see some satirical pieces by Tony Oursler, cleverly hidden here and there throughout the exhibition, and an astonishing and minimal installation by Ryoji Ikeda. No spoilers. Observations is an excellent exhibition because it embodies the diversity of methods, styles, and subject matters that the medium of video enables within art.


The Shape of Time takes us on a journey through the shapes and forms that defined art in the 20th century. Displayed in a linear and educational form, the exhibition illustrates a chain of influences across painting and sculptures.

The first room reflects the advent of modern times and the birth of abstract art with the Cubist movement. You'll see Picasso's The Guitarist, which looks like a broken glass window in different shades of beige. In the corner is Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp, which is another turning point with the readymade movement and started the controversial debate on "what is art."

The next room deepens in the abstraction of the form. A work by Wassily Kandinsky resembles musical notes, while another by Piet Mondrian is rigorous and geometric. In a central cabinet, there are studies and books from the Bauhaus school.

Further ahead in time, abstract expressionism comes filled with unbridled emotions. With its elongated form and irregular surface, the majestic sculpture Grande Famme II, by Alberto Giacometti, overlooks the room. Two steps to the right, there's a small Jackson Pollock, made with his famous dripping technique. In front of it, a texturized and violently brushed canvas by Kazuo Shiraga.

The mid-20th century and onwards is inspired by innovation in the automotive industry. Kite II, by Ellsworth Kelly, is a composition of flat colored squared paintings held by rectangular white ones. Above it, you'll see one of Alexander Calder's iconic mobiles, 31 Janvier.

The exhibition continues into the optical art of the sixties, and in Hall 3, into post-modernity. It's exciting to have works of larger than life masters displayed in such a concise and comprehensive way. The Shape of Time is a must-see exhibition because of its historical value and enchanting visuals.


The imposing dimensions of the TANK complex have a magnifying effect on the works of French multimedia artist Cyprien Gaillard. Ocean II Ocean, his solo show in Tank no. 3. puts the past in dialogue with the present through symbols of nature and culture.

Gaillard's latest film, homonymous to the exhibition, is the only light source in the room and dominates the space with a massive projection against the curved wall. It's made of footage filmed by the artist in an old Soviet subway station combined with found footage of New York subway cars dropped in the ocean. Viewers are shocked to see them so blatantly sea-dumped, before they realize that sea life creates a habitat around them, and the cyclical dimension of the piece becomes clear.

In the middle of the Tank, and only visible from one side, is L'Ange du Foyer, a hologram inspired by the work of surrealist painter Max Ernest that depicts a menacing creature re-born repetitively from within itself. Three large excavator shovels juxtaposed with gold-colored stone rods compose the room. With an ethereal atmosphere and prominence of decay, Ocean II Ocean is a touching show that'll leave a long-lasting impact on observers. The 90rmb ticket includes another exhibit, Convex/Concave.


On a lighter note, from this Saturday, Tank No.5 will receive The Art of The Brick, an exhibition of 89 artworks built with LEGO bricks by American artist Nathan Sawaya. He is the only person in the world to combine the titles of LEGO Certified Professional and Master Builder. Visitors will see classics like the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, but also appreciate the artist's unique creations. Since this is a past-time all (well, most) of us can relate to, it should be a fun and engaging program for all ages and backgrounds.


Xu Zhen's recent works are on show at MadeIn Gallery. As usual, the artist presents a social critique of contemporary life with his unique, irreverent humor.

The show starts with four large two-dimensional works from his new series, Communication. They depict mainstream cartoon characters, like Mario, Pikachu, and Mikey Mouse, but in a semi-abstract manner, as if splashed or melted on the floor. Because of the combination of paint and resin, they result in a glossy and saturated explosion of color.

The central piece is the dream-like "Hello", a three-meter tall, six-meters wide kinetic installation that's a hybrid of Corinthian column and snake; it stares at whoever enters the second room, moving its head in a gentle and slightly mournful gesture. According to the artist, it represents a confrontation with the depth of history and civilization.


Arario Gallery is showing an installation by highly controversial art duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. You might remember them from a large robotic brush that splashed a blood-like liquid in this year's Venice Biennale, or from the disturbing video of pit bulls chained to treadmills that was pulled from the Guggenheim two years ago.

This time, the work is milder. Free Biographies is a short and ambiguous multimedia installation inspired by stories of the Second Sino-Japanese War (aka World War 2) and formed by three pieces: two wrecked pieces of a Japanese plane, and a Chinese militia tank. However, none of it is real; the parts were fabricated with a high level of detail by the artists to create a fictitious plot. Displayed in a wooden cabinet inside a darkened room are the found objects of a soldier, appearing as clues that unravel his story.


Some cinematographic studios aim to create ageless pictures by adopting different artistic methods. In Production: Art and the Studio System attempts to expose the art revolving around movie production.

The exhibition starts on the second floor, where you'll find Kathryn Andrew's Fleur de Zod, an installation made of film props from the blockbuster movie Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The artists borrowed police caution tape and newspapers from the fictional Gotham City. The make-believe headline in the papers gives the work another layer of humor when related to our present political situation.

Downstairs, photographs of Universal Studios by Anthony Friedkin and Robert Cumming, filled with surreal and even bizarre elements, reveal the uncanny reality of the backlots. Near them, paintings by Sayre Gomez and Alex Israel, created using scenic art techniques, act as backdrops representing LA's dramatic sunsets. Déjà-vu by Douglas Gordon is the final piece, a large video installation that appropriates footage of black and white movies and rearranges them, generating new meanings and intensified emotions.

The exhibition has a Hollywood-like studio atmosphere from beginning to end, and some artworks have a neat retro-looking appeal. Still, the display can be monotonous, giving visitors only a superficial understanding of how the studio system employs art.


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