Cao Fei’s First Solo US Museum Show Channels a Dystopic Future China (artnet news)

Cao Fei, Still from Haze and Fog.Photo: Courtesy of MoMA.

Cao Fei, Still from Haze and Fog. Courtesy of MoMA.

 

Cao Fei, La Town: White Street (2014).Photo: Courtesy of MoMA PS1.

Cao Fei, La Town: White Street (2014). Photo: Courtesy of MoMA PS1.

Cao Fei has seen the future of China and it looks like Detroit—after a Hollywood zombie apocalypse. That’s certainly the impression one receives on entering the 38-old artist’s eponymously titled exhibition at MoMA PS1. In this, her first US museum solo outing, she presents several roomfuls of dystopic scenarios that include alienated teens, utopian musings, digital escapism, and post-apocalyptic clichés.

Hailed as among the most innovative Chinese artists working today, Cao has made video and digital technology her media of choice in exploring the lives of China’s citizens—especially its young citizens—as they struggle with raised expectations, falling economic growth rates, and a repressive society that censors the press and the Internet. In Cao’s still and moving image works, her country’s messy prospects are characteristically seen through the prism of China’s 13-to-35-year-old demographic. Unfortunately, global youth culture is just as conservative in the East as it is in the West.

Born in Guangzhou, also known as the “world’s factory,” Cao has experienced China’s economic boom first hand as well as the topsy-turvy paradoxes brought by one party laissez-faire capitalism. Among these is the absurdity of life in a city like Guangzhou, where Zaha Hadid’s futuristic opera house rises and whose pollution has been likened to a nuclear winter. If there is a place that symbolizes China’s dangerous contradictions, it’s Cao’s hometown; in turn, this fact gives the artist’s predictions of a coming Asian rust belt both their bite and urgency.

Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series: A Ming at Home (2004). Image: Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Cao Fei, Cosplayers Series: A Ming at Home (2004). Image: Courtesy of artist and Vitamin Creative Space.

Cao’s objects, C-prints, standalone videos, and film installations liberally mix together disparate cultural elements to comment on the roiling changes bedeviling Chinese society. Among the more frequently used tropes in her arsenal are Pop aesthetics, social commentary, digital animation, virtual reality, and an evolving preoccupation with youth subcultures. An artist seemingly addicted to the ideal of roleplaying, Fei uses her performances to embark on various analog and digital fantasies that star herself or others. As the artist told artnet News’s Kathleen Massara, she’s insistently in search of what she has termed “resistant power.”

Cao’s exhibition—tidily curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Director, MoMA PS1 and Chief Curator at Large, the Museum of Modern Art—is arrayed around eight rooms on the museum’s first floor and also occupies the VW sponsored dome in the museum’s courtyard. This last space contains an especially raucous multimedia installation: It’s constituent parts include a stage set, fake Chinatown signage, reproductions of hanging birds, musical instruments and the music video stylings of the NYC-based hip-hop group Notorious MSG, one of Cao’s more entertaining collaborators. (Cao held a performance with the hip-hop group this past Sunday.)

Cao Fei

Notorious MSG, with Cao Fei.

According to the museum literature, the band’s three core members currently work at restaurants in New York City’s Chinatown. Their song “Straight out of Canton” captures a great deal of the joy and some of the potential “resistance” Cao ascribes to the group’s all-immigrant appropriation of American hip-hop. However spunky and fun-filled, though, the irony of VW—a company that has admitted to massively evading global emission regulations—sponsoring this portion of the exhibition should be lost on no one.

If Cao’s early films from the 1990s and early 2000s—eight of which are arrayed in a circle on monitors in one of the show’s last room—consist of low-fi abject fictions involving mostly friends and fellow students from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, her ensuing projects feature a combination of social realist portraiture and escapist make-believe.

In 2004, for instance, Cao followed a tribe of Cosplayers around Guangzhou. In her photographs and videos a troupe of young adults lunge, thrust, and pose like American Civil War reenactors in full manga and anime costume. Like other global simulators in similar soul-killing locales—say, Brussels or Albany—they ritually refight their own Gettysburgs amid their city’s ubiquitous gray high-rises and concrete plazas.

Cao Fei, RMB City - A Second Life City Planning (2007).Photo: Courtesy of MoMA PS 1.

Cao Fei, RMB City – A Second Life City Planning (2007). Photo: Courtesy of MoMA PS 1.

A second project that goes all-in with a richly evasive Western subculture is the artist’s embrace of Second Life: Linden Lab’s formerly hot, now not virtual world that companies like Amazon, American Apparel, and Disney rushed to brand in the early 2000s (sales in that virtual universe peaked at $64 million in 2006). From 2007 to 2011, Fei purchased enough alt-real estate to build RMB City, a digital mashup of various global gothams she ghosts with China Tracy, her own Western-looking avatar.

In real life—or at least in the artist’s exhibition—the project is represented by a promotional video, white construction tools, and a broker’s reception desk. In the wall text, Cao describes the effects of her installation: “It’s perhaps no longer important to draw the line between the virtual and the real, as the border between the two has been blurred.” The reaction of hardline Chinese officials to this fanciful fairytale is easy to fathom: From Cao Fei’s mouth to Xi Jinping’s ears.

But not all of Cao’s elaborate artworks sound the same naïve fugitive note. In 2006, for instance, she took advantage of a residence in a Siemens lighting factory to juxtapose the daydreams of workers with their lives as they are actually lived inside a manufacturing plant. The ensuing project, Whose Utopia?, materializes these workers aspirations through photographs, a newspaper titled “Utopia Daily,” and a video by the same title. In Cao’s film a prima ballerina in wings and a fuzzy white halo dances amid shop machinery, an older gentleman slides silkily around the factory floor to Chinese pop music, and a young man acts out the dream of being a rock guitarist. Extravagant fantasies all, they are saved from mere amusement by one true thing. They are located inside a place of actual exploitation.

Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream No.2 (2006). Courtesy of Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. © Cao Fei / Deutsche Bank Collection.

Cao Fei, My Future is Not a Dream No.2 (2006). Courtesy of Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. © Cao Fei / Deutsche Bank Collection.

Cao’s most recent project, La Town, on the other hand, falls back on Hollywood boilerplate to depict the kind of post-apocalyptic imaginings that animate mass entertainment vehicles like HBOs The Walking Dead and MILFs Versus Zombies. The film, which opens Cao’s current survey, enlists 3D dioramas to present a Breugel-like portrait of civilization struck by an unspecified disaster. As such, it begs for something more specific, less generic, more critical and less dependent on Western clichés—including copycat subcultures—to convincingly make its dystopic point. Despite some inventiveness, the first US museum show by this fast-rising Chinese art star invites adult skepticism. Escapism is not resistance, and fantasy is not utopia.

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What Just Happened? The Björk Experience at MoMA (Hyperallergic)

by E. Wouk Almino, J. Steinhauer, B. Sutton on March 3, 2015 original article here.

Alexander McQueen, Bell Dress (2004) and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter, 'Medúlla' hair piece (2004) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Alexander McQueen, Bell Dress (2004) and Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir, aka Shoplifter, ‘Medúlla’ hair piece (2004) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

This morning, three Hyperallergic editors — Elisa Wouk Almino, Jillian Steinhauer, and Benjamin Sutton — ventured out to see the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) latest foray into avant-garde pop star curating: Björk (an exhibition that needs no subtitle). The show consists of a number of scattered components: instruments used in the making of Biophilia (her 8th album), on view in the lobby; two custom-built boxes/theaters that show, respectively, the new MoMA-commissioned video for “Black Lake” and a looping retrospective of her music videos; and an installation called “Songlines,” which features dresses, props from videos, and notebooks in a maze-like series of rooms, accompanied by a 40-minute “experimental sound experience” called “The Triumphs of a Heart” that mixes Björk’s music and a fictional fairy tale.

None of us editors was very familiar with Björk before (Hrag, who is the Björk fan among us, couldn’t make it). It’s unclear how familiar we are with her now. Here, a discussion of the show.

From left to right: Bernhard Willhelm, 'Volta' Tour Dress, The Icelandic Love Corporation, Second Skin (2004) and Wild Woman Voodoo Granny Doll Crochet (2007/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

From left to right: Bernhard Willhelm, ‘Volta’ Tour Dress, The Icelandic Love Corporation, Second Skin (2004) and Wild Woman Voodoo Granny Doll Crochet (2007/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Jillian Steinhauer: WELL, that was interesting. Do we start with the good or the bad? How about both? The good, for me: I left more into Björk as a musician than I’ve ever been before! The bad: holy hagiography.

Elisa Wouk Almino: The good: I got to see Björk in person dressed as a cactus. (She was there for three minutes, partially visible behind lots of journalists.) The bad: I think my headset told me that to feel like an underwater jellyfish is to experience a higher mode of being.

Benjamin Sutton: For me, the only good part was the exhibition’s lower level, where we got to watch her music videos. The bad: everything else. That being said, there were a couple of objects upstairs, in the “Björk: The Ride” portion of the show, that I really liked. What were some of your favorite future Hard Rock Café artifacts from the show?

Some of Bjork's notebooks in the "Songlines" portion of the exhibition (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Some of Björk’s notebooks in the “Songlines” portion of the exhibition (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

JS: I think you mean “Björk: The Experience.” (Sorry, readers, it’s actually called “Songlines.”) And honestly, I had trouble concentrating on any of them because I was so distracted by the horrible audio droning on in my ears: “You have been given a heart, which rests on your chest”; “The girl’s body had become home to a new heart — a tiny baby’s girl’s heart.” I was disheartened to learn that the script was penned by an actual writer named Sjón.

I suppose I liked seeing her notebooks and handwriting. The dresses were cool, but I just don’t have strong feelings about crazy designer dresses.

EWA: Yeah, in some ways I was more surprised by the mannequin Björk heads than the elaborate dresses themselves. And based on those notebooks that sound like the utterances of an angsty teenager (some of them do, actually, date to her childhood), I would think Björk wrote the script. That being said, the notebooks are one of the few items that revealed something about her work process.

Iris van Herpen, 'Biophilia' Dress (2011) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Iris van Herpen, ‘Biophilia’ Dress (2011) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

BS: Agreed. That lack of anything even remotely informative about her work and creative process is what, for me, made it not just an underwhelming exhibition, but a seriously bad one. I think her videos and the collaborations she’s done with artists and designers — everyone from her former partner Matthew Barney and the Dutch duo Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin to Alexander McQueen and Marjan Pejoski — are worthy fodder for a museum show, but this one is so conceptually compromised and flimsily assembled that I spent most of today’s preview in disbelief that I was actually at MoMA.

JS: This is probably just me being me, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s a bit of sexism at work here. I feel like if this were a show celebrating a male musician, we’d get more than just dresses and music videos — which, although they look awesome on a big screen in a comfy makeshift theater, are, after all, available to watch at home on your computer. Did either of your learn anything today that you didn’t already know about Björk?

EWA: I learned, thanks to the “Black Lake” video, that Björk has a deep connection with rocks.

JS: Ha!

EWA: I do honestly think she takes her love of rocks seriously.

Installation view, 'Björk' at MoMA (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Installation view, ‘Björk’ at MoMA (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

BS: I dunno, I learned that Björk probably drives a Volkswagen now — at least I hope she does, in light of how heavily VW-branded this show is. (The “innovative technology” for “Songlines” is based on an app developed by Volkswagen.) As far as the sexism question, Jillian, I don’t know. I haven’t seen an equivalent exhibition devoted to a male musician. I guess we’ll have to wait for the inevitable Beck retrospective.

JS: I didn’t see the David Bowie retrospective, but it seemed to suffer from similar problems, so that would perhaps be a useful comparison. I feel like this gets at the question of how to present these types of artists in a museum setting. I agree that Björk seems worthy of a show, but it seemed like MoMA had no idea what to do with her or how to create one to emphasize her actual artistry. So they went for spectacle.

EWA: We did have to stand in three different lines for puzzlingly long amounts of time. One line that was somewhat worth the wait was for the new video MoMA commissioned, “Black Lake” — the visuals were actually quite stunning.

Björk, still from "Black Lake"

till from Björk’s and director Andrew Thomas Huang’s “Black Lake” video (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

JS: Agreed. I think “Black Lake” drove home for me that Björk’s best medium is the music video. It made me wish the show was more intensely focused on that aspect of her work, on breaking down how those get made, especially since they seem so collaborative.

BS: Yeah, “Black Lake” was beautiful, but even that was overwrought. The architectural installation — by The Living — seemed superfluous and incredibly inconsiderate. Like curator Klaus Biesenbach and Björk decided: “Let’s cover the walls with soft, plush things, then make people sit on the floor!” [Maniacal laughter.] And the video plays simultaneously on two screens on either side of the room in some feeble attempt at creating an “immersive” experience. Why not just have one screen and more of those cushioned red cubes from the adjacent music video theater?

Instruments for 'Biophilia': Björgvin Tómasson and Matt Nolan's Gameleste and Björgvin Tómasson's Pipe Organ

nstruments for ‘Biophilia’: Björgvin Tómasson and Matt Nolan’s Gameleste and Björgvin Tómasson’s Pipe Organ (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

JS: I don’t know, I didn’t mind the floor so much — at least we were allowed to sit. Can I just mention that I thought the instruments in the lobby were super cool, probably my favorite part? Although I was disappointed to miss the Tesla coil — the wall text said it was there, but I couldn’t find it.

EWA: Yeah, I don’t think there was substantial enough wall text throughout. I’m all for an exhibition that privileges experience over information, but I think some context would have made the show less fragmentary and confusing.

BS: Maybe, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, that’s why we were all so intensely disappointed by the exhibition: we were expecting an exhibition. Had we shown up to preview “The Tunnel of Björk” — and had said tunnel flowed a little more smoothly — we would have liked it?

JS: But if we wanted “The Tunnel of Björk,” wouldn’t we have gone to alterna–Walt Disney World?

BS: That’s exactly where we went.

Shaun Leane, Feather Ear Pieces (2003/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Shaun Leane, Feather Ear Pieces (2003/15) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

Alexander McQueen, "Pagan Poetry" Dress (2001), and Matthew Barney, 'Verspertine' Music Box (2001) and 'Vespertine Live' Shoes (2001) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Alexander McQueen, “Pagan Poetry” Dress (2001), and Matthew Barney, ‘Verspertine’ Music Box (2001) and ‘Vespertine Live’ Shoes (2001) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Chris Cunningham, "All Is Full of Love" Robots (1999) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Chris Cunningham, “All Is Full of Love” Robots (1999) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Detail of one of Chris Cunningham's "All Is Full of Love" Robots (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Detail of one of Chris Cunningham’s “All Is Full of Love” Robots (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

Coat from "Jóga" Music Video (1997) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Coat from “Jóga” Music Video (1997) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Bernhard Willhelm, Body Sculpture (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Bernhard Willhelm, Body Sculpture (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Björk ephemera and photos (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Björk ephemera and photos (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Val Gardland, Crystal Mask

Val Garland, Crystal Mask (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

Installation view, the "Songlines" portion of Björk at MoMA (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

Installation view, the “Songlines” portion of Björk at MoMA (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Sean Hellfritsch and Isaiah Saxon, "Wanderlust" Painbody Head, Costume, and Yak (2007)

Sean Hellfritsch and Isaiah Saxon, “Wanderlust” Painbody Head, Costume, and Yak (2007) (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

The entrance to "Songlines" (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

The entrance to “Songlines” (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

The music video room (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

The music video room (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

 

A view of Andrew Cavatorta's Gravity Harps (2011), used on Björk's album 'Biophilia,' in the MoMA lobby (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

A view of Andrew Cavatorta’s Gravity Harps (2011), used on Björk’s album ‘Biophilia,’ in the MoMA lobby (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Björk's and director Stephane Sednaoui's "Big Time Gravity" video (1993), projected on a large wall at MoMA

Björk’s and director Stephane Sednaoui’s “Big Time Sensuality” video (1993), projected on a large wall at MoMA (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

 

Björk will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown East, Manhattan) from March 8 through June 7.

 

 

Copy Makes Perfect: Sturtevant at MoMA (Hyperallergic)

by Cynthia Cruz on February 11, 2015 original article here.

Installation view of 'Sturtevant: Double Trouble' at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

Installation view of ‘Sturtevant: Double Trouble’ at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

 

The concepts of appropriation and replication were on the lips of many presenters at the College Art Association (CAA) conference this year. In light of the buzz on this topic, I thought this article would be appropriate.

Repetition is displacement, repetition is difference; repetition is pushing the limits of resemblance and limitation — it has some other factors or dynamics. So it’s not like saying you repeat. For instance, Andy Warhol repeated, but he did not do repetition … But repetition has nothing to do with repeating. —Sturtevant

The multiplication of things under an absolutely identical concept has as its consequence the division of the concept into absolutely identical things. —Gilles Deleuze

The Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of Sturtevant’s work, Double Trouble, is a study in movement. Along with her many near-replications of other artists’ work (including takes on Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Félix Gonzalez-Torres, and Joseph Beuys) it features her more recent video works. These videos — “Finite Infinite” (2010), a corridor-long projection of a dog running; “Dillinger Running Series” (2000), in which Sturtevant-as-Beuys races along the wall to a pounding beat; and “Pacman” (2012), featuring footage of the eponymous game, with Pac-Man racing after and consuming dots and fruits — each introduce elements of a pervasive theme that relates to racing, consuming, and being consumed. Juxtaposed with her “copy” pieces, these videos shed light on her work: Sturtevant’s practice consumes pieces by other artists as she races ahead, making herself invisible behind the work of others in order to avoid being consumed in turn.

Installation view of ‘Sturtevant: Double Trouble’ at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

 

She is, of course, not actually invisible. She exists in the space between the original work and the copy. In this way, she stays ahead of the game. And it is in this space, this trace, that Sturtevant’s genius exists. In Of Grammatology, Derrida describes trace as the difference between two signs. For example, the meaning of woman will always have the shadow of man behind it. The space between is the trace. It is the “mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present.”

In an interview with SUNY Purchase art history professors Bruce Hainley and Michael Lobel printed in the MoMA catalogue, Sturtevant says that she read Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition in its original in French in Ibiza with the assistance of a French-English dictionary. Years later, when the book was translated into English, Sturtevant reread the book, which, as one might imagine, was an entirely different text from the one she read in 1968 when it was first published. Deleuze’s central idea is that when, for example, Marcel Duchamp makes a copy of a urinal, the new copy is the event; it is no longer about the (so-called) original copy. This concept infers a sense of movement, the movement from so-called copy to copy, and it is in this movement of copying that Sturtevant’s artwork occurs.

Sturtevant’s work is often confused for an act of “appropriation” and consequently taken as a gesture of anger directed at the male artists whose work she “appropriates.” It is revealing to contrast this with the work of male artists deemed “appropriation artists,” like Richard Prince or even Andy Warhol, neither of whom has been construed as angry or even political. As a result, her work is often dismissed as an affront. One example is a review by Vincent Noce in the French newspaper Libération of Sturtevant’s 2010 exhibition, The Razzle Dazzle of Thinking, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Noce writes:

A pioneer of the “appropriationist” trend, the artist asserts facsimile as artistic process. She confuses replicating with copying, which are two distinct notions: a replica is realized by the artist him- or herself. In music or literature, such a debate would be unimaginable: a plagiarist who reproduced a score note for note, or a book word for word, and then affixed his or her name to it would be covered in shame. But in the visual arts, legitimacy is acquired through obscurity of discourse. What is fundamentally at stake is aesthetics. One must see these copies to realize just how ugly they are: crudely made, with mediocre materials, gloomy colors, all the life having run out of them. Parody is a gesture that might have had meaning in the 1960s. But just as spluttering does not make a story, posturing does not make art, and imposture even less.

Sturtevant, "Study for Muybridge Plate #97: Woman Walking" (1966) (Glenstone; photo by Alex Jamison; © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

Sturtevant, “Study for Muybridge Plate #97: Woman Walking” (1966) (Glenstone; photo by Alex Jamison; © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

To confine Sturtevant’s work to “appropriation” art is to miss the beauty and the genius of it. At MoMA we are helped by interviews in which she speaks frankly about her impulse and what drives her. Discussing Duchamp, Warhol, and Deleuze, she returns over and over to the theme of repetition. Repetition as the guiding force; appropriation as the means by which to make repetition. Compulsive repetition does several things. For one, it negates: when an image is repeated, the second iteration erases the first. In other words, the second replaces the first — the first is negated. Say the same word over and over and the word will eventually lose meaning. This is what Sturtevant means when she proclaims, in the introduction to the Double Trouble catalogue, “I wanted to make an artwork that could disappear.” The same can be said for the artist.

Installation view of 'Sturtevant: Double Trouble' at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

Installation view of ‘Sturtevant: Double Trouble’ at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

By repeatedly taking on the roles of other artists and making work that replicates their work, Sturtevant vanishes, in essence, into the background. But so do the artists she imitates, whose “originals” are consumed by her “copies.” In interviews, she has stated that she does not want biographical information included in relation to her work. Biographical information overshadows the work, she said, and then people wont look at the work. In order for her work to work, she needs to vanish.

sturtevant_moma_in2304_09_cc

Installation view of ‘Sturtevant: Double Trouble’ at the Museum of Modern Art (© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Thomas Griesel; all works by Sturtevant © Estate Sturtevant, Paris)

 

 

 

 

 

Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman (Citylab)

 

by Kriston Capps  Nov 4, 2014 original article here.

Image

Andrew Winning/Reuters

 

Banksy Does New York, a new documentary airing on HBO on Nov. 17, opens on a bunch of scofflaws trying to jack an inflatable word balloon reading “Banksy!” from the side of a low-rise building in Queens. These hooligans weren’t Banksy. Neither were the police officers who took possession of the piece after the failed heist and denied that it was art. Nor in all likelihood was the silver-haired man who sold $420 worth of Banksy prints for $60 a pop in Central Park, or the drivers who slowly trawled New York streets in trucks tricked out with Banksy’s sculpture, or the accordionist accompanying one of Banksy’s installations. While the film shares a lot of insights about street art, media sensationalism, viral phenomena, and the people who make Banksy possible, it doesn’t cast a light on who Banksy is or what she looks like.

“Banksy hunters” who tracked the elusive artist over the course of her month-long residency last October never caught a glimpse of her—at least, so far as anyone can be sure. Reporters such as Beth Stebner (New York Daily News) and Keegan Hamilton (then with The Village Voice) didn’t find her. That her identity is still secret is an achievement, given her notoriety and marketability.

But what Banksy Does New York makes plain is that the artist known as Banksy is someone with a background in the art world. That someone is working with a committee of people to execute works that range in scale from simple stencil graffiti to elaborate theatrical conceits. The documentary shows that Banksy has a different understanding of the street than the artists, street-writers, and art dealers who steal Banksy’s shine by “spot-jocking” or straight-up pilfering her work—swagger-jackers who are invariably men in Banksy Does New York.

All of which serves as evidence against the flimsy theory that Banksy is a man.

A scene from Banksy Does New York depicts vandals attempting to make off with the last piece from Banksy’s 31-day residency in New York. (HBO)

 

This hypothesis is not completely unfounded. Eleven years ago, The Guardian‘s Simon Hattenstone met Banksy in a pub in Bristol. The reporter had his own concerns about identifying Banksy, even early into the artist’s career. (“Nobody here seems to know what he looks like. But they all know him. That is, they know of him. That is, if he is a he.”) Hesitations notwithstanding, Hattenstone was convinced: He wrote that the person he interviewed “looks like a cross between Jimmy Nail and Mike Skinner of the Streets.” Your standard bloke.

In the 2010 film Exit Through the Gift Shop, another documentary about street art, Banksy appears as an anonymous figure whose voice is disguised, but who is plainly a man. So that would seem to put the question to rest. Further to the point, the street artist Shepard Fairey referred to Banksy as “he” and “him” throughout an interview with Brian Lehrer the same year. Fairey would be in a position to know, presumably: He’s the closest thing Banksy has to a colleague. Fairey says that Banksy insists on anonymity, in part, to manage his image in the press. “He controls the way his message is put out very carefully,” Fairey says in the interview.

Yet these pieces of evidence confuse rather than clarify the issue. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a classic piece of misdirection. Over the course of the movie, the film’s would-be documentarian, Thierry Guetta, is exposed as a poor filmmaker. Partway through, Banksy takes over the production, turning it into a documentary about the documentarian instead. To complete the meta romp, Guetta, working under the nomme de rue Mr. Brainwash, proceeds to rips off Banksy’s style. All of this means that Fairey, Banksy’s co-conspirator in Banksy’s film, is an unreliable narrator.

Another piece from Banksy’s New York residency. (HBO)

 

During the very first interview that Banksy gave to The Guardian, another figure was present (“Steve,” Banksy’s agent). Another figure is always present, says Canadian media artist Chris Healey, who has maintained since 2010 that Banksy is a team of seven artists led by a woman—potentially the same woman with long blonde hair who appears in scenes depicting Banksy’s alleged studio in Exit Through the Gift Shop. Although Healey won’t identify the direct source for his highly specific claim, it’s at least as believable as the suggestion that Banksy is and always has been a single man.

“Since there is so much misdirection and jamming of societal norms with Banksy’s work, as well as the oft-repeated claim no one notices Banksy, then it makes sense,” Healey tells me. “No one can find Banksy because they are looking for, or rather assuming, a man is Banksy.”

A Banksy outside the Hustler Club in Hells Kitchen. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

 

Part of what makes Banksy’s work so popular is that it doesn’t operate much like street art at all. Think about Invader or Fairey, artists who appear in Exit Through the Gift Shop: Invader’s 8-bit career began with a single “Space Invaders” icon that the artist reiterated endlessly. Fairey’s work started with a stencil of Andre the Giant prefaced by the word “Obey,” again, repeated over and over. While they’re both more like media moguls than graffiti writers today, Fairey and Invader started with the same strategy: to project themselves into public spaces by broadcasting themselves all over it.

That ambition to control a public space through this sort of redundant branding, to make the street your own, is a masculine one—and it’s shared by the overwhelming majority of street artists. In the theater of the public square, graffiti is cousin to cat-calling—which Slate’s Dee Locket smartly explains as the constant effort by men to “create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces,” specifically by claiming women’s private spaces as their own. Naturally, street art is at best delightful and at worst a nuisance, whereas cat-calling is an intolerable social problem and a legitimate threat to women’s safety. So any comparison between the two only goes so far.

Still from a video graphic mapping Banksy’s October 2013 New York residency. (HBO)

 

Banksy does Brooklyn. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

 

Compared to the highly visible work of Invader or Fairey or dozens of other high-profile street artists, Banksy’s work is different. Girls and women figure into Banksy’s stenciled figures, for starters, something that isn’t true of 99 percent of street art. Banksy’s work has always done more than project “Banksy” ad nauseum. (In fact, a “handling service” called Pest Control exists to authenticate Banksy’s protean projects.) Banksy’s graffiti understands and predicates a relationship between the viewer and the street, something that graffiti that merely shouts the artist’s name or icon over and over (and over and over) doesn’t do.

Maybe it gives Banksy too much credit to say that her work shows a greater capacity for imagining being in someone else’s shoes. (It’s true of her themes of social justice, but it’s also formally true in the way her work anticipates interaction with the viewer.) Andrew Russeth, at the time the editor for Gallerist, the New York Observer‘s art site, finds Banksy’s work lacking in the Banksy Does New York documentary, calling it “art that hits you over the head with its message” and “worst-common-denominator art”—although he had kinder things to say about Sirens of the Lambs, a truck filled with squeaking plush animals. The fine-art world may not love Banksy, but Banksy plainly thinks of herself as part of that world: The New York residency drew on countless tropes from the art world, complete with a wry audio tour guide.

Banksy’s Everything but the Kitchen Sphinx in Queens was dismantled and removed by the owner of an auto-glass shop. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

 

“The real show he is running is on the Internet,” says one savvy observer in the documentary. “It’s like the Internet is almost his graffiti wall.” Close: Her graffiti wall. The savvy manipulation of media to make viral art, to make art about virality, makes Banksy an innovator breaking out of a familiar form. In contemporary art today, that’s a feminine trait: The best selfie artists are women, for example. So are the artists leading the Post-Internet art world.

Given how many men rip off Banksy in Banksy Does New York—watch the film to meet the utterly vampiric art dealer Stephan Keszler, if for no other reason—it’s only fitting to presume that Banksy is a woman. Women experience the street in a different way than men do. Women experience the art world in a different way than men do. Love her or hate her, Banksy is putting herself at the intersection of the street and the art world. Why would anyone expect that position to be occupied by a man?

Works by Banksy titled Kate Moss 2005 appear in a 2009 auction. (Andrew Parsons/Reuters)

 

What most street art looks like. (HBO)

 

 

 

Prehistoric cave prints show most early artists were women (NBC)

By Nidhi Subbaraman original article here.

The Panel of Hands in El Castillo Cave near the village of Puente Viesgo is seen in this handout photo released June 14, 2012.  Scientists using a new...

Alongside drawings of bison and horses, the first painters left clues to their identity on the stone walls of caves, blowing red-brown paint through rough tubes and stenciling outlines of their palms. New analysis of ancient handprints in France and Spain suggests that most of those early artists were women.

This is a surprise, since most archaeologists have assumed it was men who had been making the cave art. One interpretation is that early humans painted animals to influence the presence and fate of real animals that they’d find on their hunt, and it’s widely accepted that it was the men who found and killed dinner.

But a new study indicates that the majority of handprints found near cave art were made by women, based on their overall size and relative lengths of their fingers.

“The assumption that most people made was it had something to do with hunting magic,” Penn State archaeologist Dean Snow, who has been scrutinizing hand prints for a decade, told NBC News. The new work challenges the theory that it was mostly men, who hunted, that made those first creative marks.

Another reason we thought it was men all along? Male archeologists from modern society where gender roles are rigid and well-defined — they found the art. “[M]ale archaeologists were doing the work,” Snow said, and it’s possible that “had something to do with it.”

Dean Snow

Prints from the El Castillo caves showing what are likely male (L) and female (R) palm prints. (Dean Snow)

In National GeographicVirginia Hughes explains Snow’s finding, published this month in American Antiquity. The new paper includes details from 32 stencils found in 11 caves in Spain and France, where some of the hand prints date back almost 40,000 years. Of the 32 stencils, 24 were likely female.

The new reading of the stencils “provokes a whole series of other questions,” Snow said.

“What was the role of women in producing these,” and, where else did they paint? “It may be that all we’re seeing is the fraction of the art that survived,” he said — paintings on exposed stone surfaces would almost undoubtedly have worn off over tens of thousands of years.

Over the last decade, Snow has been building evidence to show how the size of handprints and the relative lengths of fingers can tell us the sex of the artist who made them. He has also co-developed algorithms that can let computers scan and analyze prints quickly, and help identify the sex of the painters.

Other recent work on cave paintings has brought up the possibility that some early European cave art wasn’t made by homo sapiens, but by our hominid cousins, the Neanderthals. Recent dating of the El Castillo cave in Spain, where some of Snow’s prints came from, indicates that the very earliest cave paintings were made 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals were still thriving in Europe.

New evidence and new research methods continue to alter and fill in our understanding of ancient societies. But one thing’s for sure: As long as humans have been making art, we’ve been printing signatures by its side.

 via National Geographic

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.