Art fairs, like The Armory Show, get a bad rap for being poor places to actually see art, and there’s good reason for it. Understandably, galleries are focused on sales—TEFAF Art Market Report 2015 found that art fairs drive 40% of annual gallery revenue—and as a result, dealers tend to present a mish-mash of available works by their top selling artists rather than attempting to establish a curatorial perspective. There is also the issue of the sheer volume of works displayed—at The Armory Show 2016, 205 galleries from 36 countries presented booths. It would be impossible to see it all, let alone appreciate it all.
The booths that stood out at The Armory Show 2016, which ran from 3 to 6 March, tended to either focus in depth on a single artist, or to present works in mediums not usually seen at an art fair, where photographs, paintings and works on paper reign supreme. Below we round up our top five booths at The Armory Show 2016.
Shih Chieh Huang at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
If for no reason other than that it was really weird, dealers and visitors alike seemed to flock to, and even to hold meetings in, the dark box that was Ronald Feldman Fine Arts’ booth. It contained Disphotic Zone (2016), an immersive installation created by Taiwanese artist Shih Chieh Huang. The booth was dominated by a large, chandelier-like cluster hanging from the ceiling which resembled a gigantic jellyfish, and lit the space in washes of neon colors. Created from plastic bags shaped like tentacles, discarded Evian water bottles, and colored lights, the sculpture inflated and deflated as if it were a marine creature floating through a sea of air.
As its name implies, the installation was meant to recreate the disphotic zone in the ocean, which is the area 650 feet beneath the surface where sunlight barely reaches, therefore making photosynthesis impossible. Instead, the murky waters are lit by bioluminescent objects, which Shih Chieh Huang recreated in his works, albeit with quotidian rather than organic materials. Along with the jellyfish chandelier, there was also an eighteen-foot metal rack from which hung spinning Evian plastic bottles containing glowing water, which looked like sculptures of crustaceans made by children, and a wall of circuit breakers that served the function of controlling the special effects in the box. They resembled sea anemones.
The installation represented something that booths at art fairs so rarely are—fun. If only to evoke the sort of child-like sense of wonder one feels at a natural history museum, it was worth it to linger for more than a few seconds.
Mario Pfeifer at KOW
Crowds also gathered around the booth hosted by Berlin gallery KOW, which displayed a double-channel video installation by German artist Mario Pfeifer. Alternating between close-up images of machines at work on an assembly line at a factory, and close up images of a group of black men rapping, the work resembled a music video created by a rap producer who had recently read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. In fact, the footage mashed up the original music video for the song Blacktivist by the Brooklyn-based rap group the Flatbush ZOMBIES, which was released on September 11, 2015, and since has received over 2.3 million hits on YouTube, and imagery Pfeifer shot at a 3-D gun manufacturing workshop in Austin, Texas, which aims to allow private citizens to create their own unregistered automatic weapons. The sound to the video was made available by gallery director Raphael Oberhuber, who handed out wireless headphones.
Even without the audio accompaniment, the message in the video was easy to read. Lyrics like ‘You get a billion endorsements, and you give nothing back/I have nothing,’ were juxtaposed against texts describing the suit of a gun manufacturer against the United States government. The rappers flashed gold grilles and reenacted ISIS videos in between shots of guns slowly emerging from the assembly line. All of this was cut with sequences of police violence shot by body cameras. It read as an indictment of pop culture many fronts—of the ‘new slavery’ of black males beholden to material goods as depicted in music videos, of the fetishisation of weapons by the gun industry, of the omnipresence of violence in media, and of the brutality of policing in America.
Many booths presented works by black artists that commented on contemporary culture. Somehow, the video at KOW seemed to be the only one that was relevant. It confronted racism, police brutality, and the gun industry in a direct, unapologetic manner standing out from the more subtly charged—and subdued—works in the rest of the fair.
Image: Mario Pfeifer at KOW. Courtesy KOW.
Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Which is not to say that subtlety didn’t have its own beauty. In the Armory Focus section, which focused this year on artists working with an ‘African perspective’, a notable booth of nine large-scale works on paper by Ruby Onyinyechi Amanze immediately drew the eye with flashes of vibrant colors on compositions marked by expanses of blank space. Presented by Seattle-based Mariane Ibrahim gallery, the blank space in the works were themselves a sort of respite from the onslaught of noisy imagery one has to walk through to get to the Armory Focus section, which was located at the back of the fair.
Some background on the artist is necessary to access the symbolism in the compositions, which resemble collages created in the immediate aftermath of a lucid dream. Amanze was born in Nigeria in 1982, and moved soon after to the United Kingdom, where she spent 13 years before ending up in the United States. She feels her identity is thus unfixed, unattached to any one place. The figures in her work suggest an identity she has imagined for herself, one in which skin tones are not black or white, but rather, a mish-mash of patterns. This identity is not without problems—most of the figures Amanze draws are either deformed, disembodied, or in danger of floating into voids represented by large black squares and clouds of blurred ink.
10 Litres of Air [The Divers II] (2016), a 6 x 6 foot canvas created from graphite, ink, photo transfers, fluorescent acrylic and colored pencils, depicts a series of bodies, their skin either fluorescent yellow or marked by paisley pattern, slipping through the arms of a male figure bearing a leopard’s head into a deep black void in the center of the composition. I Sent You To Survey the World, and When You Did Not Return, I Came (2016) repeats the theme of divers, only this time, they are seemingly being rescued by a sphinx-like figure floating across the void, leaving a trail of potted plants in her wake. The plants are the sign of life in a realm of nothingness—or the traces of domesticity shed in the quest for an identity. Either way, one gets the sense that in viewing the works, an intimate insight into the inner thoughts of Amaze’s is potentially being presented.
Kapwani Kiwanga at Galerie Jerome Poggi and Galerie Tanja Wagner
Ontario-born, Paris-based artist Kapwani Kiwanga was the 2016 Commissioned Artist of the Armory, which meant that her work was everywhere at the fair: featured on the cover of the fair’s catalogue, presented in The Secretary’s Suite, installed in a dedicated booth on Pier 92 showing a single channel video installation, and sold in a limited edition screen print whose proceeds benefited the Museum of Modern Art.
Image: Kapwani Kiwanga, The Secretary’s Suite, 2016. Mixed-media installation, 23:00 min. Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner.
That didn’t take away from the impact of a presentation of her work in the Armory Focus section of the fair, in a booth by Paris-based Galerie Jerome Poggi, and Berlin-based Galerie Tanja Wagner. Admittedly, some of the power came in the display, which read like a dedicated solo exhibition in a sea of mega galleries flexing their muscles.
The booth focused on sisal, a species of agave native to southern Mexico, and grown in countries such as Brazil, China, and East Africa, that is traditionally used in the production of ropes, paper, cloth, and carpets. Recently, it has also been produced on a larger scale for use in the building industry as plaster reinforcement, and in the car industry for plastic products. By displaying sisal in its natural form in the context of an exhibition, Kiwanga elevated the commonly used and cheap material, which in its basic form looks like hair, into a tool with which to create valuable sculptures.
She didn’t have to do much to transform the material. The kinky blonde fibers hung in large masses on metal appendages and between lengths of wire, as if they were sheared wool left to dry in the sun after being washed off, or wigs carefully put out of harms way by a group of women swimming in some invisible dimension beyond the fair. On the floor was a plinth upon which was placed documents that explained the history of sisal’s industrialisation; it also read as a nod to Kapwani’s own research into the matter, as well as her training as an anthropologist at McGill University in Montreal.
Based on your frame of reference, the works told a story without having to do much of anything—on visual evidence alone, they read as both materials derived from Greek mythology, or symbols of some dark, oppressive history of enforced labor. In their implied—but open—narrative, they begged more than just a passing glance.
Image: Kapwani Kiwanga, White gold II, 2016. Waxed steel, sisal fiber. Approx. 175 x 170 cm. Courtesy Galerie Tanja Wagner.
Ryan Mrozowski and Julia Bland at On Stellar Rays
Although there was nothing in either the works or the setting that made such a comparison likely, the dual presentation of works by Ryan Mrozowski and Julia Bland by New York-based gallery On Stellar Rays read something like a cloister in a medieval convent. Untitled (Orange) (2016) by Mrozowski, a figurative painting of verdant green leaves and glowing oranges, was the fragrant fruit tree in the center courtyard. Swan’s Island (2016) by Bland, a woven tapestry of canvas, silk, wool, linen thread, wax, fabric dye and oil paint, resembled a stained glass tableau behind the altar of a chapel. Untitled (dot) (2016) by Mrozowski, an inlaid plywood and stain composition of white dots on a black background, a representation of the night sky as yet unpolluted by the industrial revolution.
Reading so much into the works might be a mistake, especially something so romantic, but there was something beautiful about the raw simplicity and craft in the presentations by young artists in a tiny booth tucked into a deep corner of the fair. In such a setting, one can’t take for granted the moments when art work actually evokes anything beyond name recognition. —[O]
Image: Julia Bland, Swan's Island, 2016. Canvas, silk, wool, linen thread, wax, fabric dye, and oil paint. 100 x 77 inches. Courtesy On Stellar Rays.