Cao Fei, MoMA PS1, New York — ‘Pithy and profound’

A still from Cao Fei's 'Whose Utopia?' (2006)

A nonetheless from Cao Fei’s ‘Whose Utopia?’ (2006)

Cao Fei builds gorgeous nightmares. In an imaginary city gripped by apocalyptic transformation, a school band blows a silent march a boy on a camel surveys acres of destruction from his hilltop perch a dying squid leaks blood all more than an abandoned factory floor. Guangzhou, the artist’s true house town, also becomes a forum of fantasy. Equipped with a camera and a gothic sensibility, she navigates the city’s wasted edges, its massive apartment complexes, and drastically reconfigured landscapes. She wades into ugliness and emerges with dystopic trophies.

The 37-year-old artist commands a pithy and profound retrospective at PS1, a distillation of her nevertheless-evolving career. Born just after the Cultural Revolution, Cao Fei is the daughter of the realist sculptor Cao Chong’en, who famously glorified Communist heroes like Deng Xiaoping in bronze. His ideal-recognized operate is a monument of Bruce Lee that presides over Hong Kong’s harbour. Cao Fei has adapted her father’s realism and fondness for icons. In place of his obligatory optimism, she gives scorching assessments of modern China, shot by way of with wistfulness. Mining pop culture’s techno vein, she inserts avatars, zombies and anime characters into artworks that mingle romanticism and dejection.

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Her most touching function, the video “Whose Utopia?” came out of a six-month residency at the Osram lighting factory in Foshan, sponsored by the Siemens Art Program. Cao started her tenure by polling workers. “How do you really feel about the factory?” she asked in a lengthy questionnaire. “Why did you leave your house and go to the [Pearl] river delta?” What do you hope to achieve in the future?” The answers gave Cao a way to measure the distance between her subjects’ dreams and the lives they really lead. She zoomed by stages into her subjects’ imaginations, lingering on the workplace, then the perform and ultimately the workers themselves.

First she filmed the empty factory, focusing on the aesthetics of the industrial procedure. It is a tradition that goes back to Charles Sheeler, whose 1920s photographs of the Ford Motor Company’s plant near Detroit arranged ladle hook cranes, stamping presses and blast furnaces into sophisticated, semi-abstract compositions. If Sheeler’s machines were both functional and totemic, Cao’s have a weirdly human good quality they jerk along, handling fragile bulbs with endearing and unexpected grace.

In the second element of “Whose Utopia?” it’s the humans who behave like a synchronised apparatus, laying their individuality aside to sort filaments and assemble boxes. Abruptly, as in a mass hallucination, those identical labourers take turns acting out their innermost desires, surrounded by the humdrum efficiency of the factory and the corps of oblivious colleagues. A girl in a tutu balances en pointe and stretches her arms skyward, while white wings attached to her back flutter in the stultifying air. Yet another, in a long white shift, mimics the agonies of a dying swan. Three or 4 youngsters strum electric guitars while an older man sidles along the aisles in a routine that mixes Michael Jackson, Marcel Marceau, and Chinese folk dance. The triteness of their fantasies — how a lot of girls all over the planet aspire to endless pirouettes, or boys to rock stardom? — render them all the a lot more poignant. The film’s third section residences in their faces, every 1 static and distinctive.

There’s nothing new about this reminder that workers are folks also. Lewis Hine perfected each the form and the message a lot more than one hundred years ago. But in a nation that glorified heroic labour throughout most of its current past and now relegates workers to the boiler space of China’s industrial miracle, the photos take on a patina of bitter nostalgia.

So, also, does the monumental “La Town,” a cease-action film that conveys urban malaise in gloomy vignettes. Cao fashioned a cast of tiny figures and distributed them about an imaginary urban landscape, an Everycity fallen into moral and physical dereliction. In La Town, sex is bought and sold or permeated by apathy. Zombie mobs menace the concourses of supermarkets and sidewalks, even though passers-by appear on with dumb indifference. Santa Claus’s sleigh has slammed into a higher-speed train, and a reindeer carcass hangs from the wires above the tracks. A neon sign advertises Gone with the Wind in an abandoned theatre, memorialising a once-vibrant civilisation. Cao adapts the pretentious, nonsensical dialogue from Hiroshima Mon Amour, and it’s not clear regardless of whether she intends it as irony or homage.

In either case, “La Town” howls at the encroachment of western commercialism and the violent transformation of Chinese cities. Is that “La” just the French feminine write-up, a sign of specious chic? Or perhaps it is a reference to Los Angeles, the dream factory that sucks in the fallen and the lost, then spits their generic fantasies back out into the globe. In the previous couple of decades, Chinese cities have been bulldozed and rebuilt to accommodate a labour force of migrating millions. A tightly wound culture has steadily unfurled, opening itself to worldwide influences. Cao finds wealthy fishing grounds in that unfathomable transformation, in the urban century’s intertwined excitement and despair.

To August 31,

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Section: Arts

Coney Island: Visions of American Dreamland, 1861-2008, Brooklyn Museum, New York

Harvey Stein’s ‘The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile’ (1982)©Harvey Stein

Harvey Stein’s ‘The Hug: Closed Eyes and Smile’ (1982)

Meander through Coney Island’s bleak, ramshackle fairgrounds and it is virtually impossible to conjure the fairyland of decades past. Today’s empty lots and automobile parks after sparkled with thousands upon thousands of bulbs, all blinking with the promise of pleasure. The Brooklyn Museum’s Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, filters the spirit of the electric Eden through the eyes of those who treasured it. This cornucopia of a show jumbles carved carousel horses, postcards, salvaged ghouls, film clips, souvenirs and paintings to glorious and melancholy effect. The show ignores developers’ futuristic daydreams for the Coney Island of tomorrow and alternatively drifts off on a plume of nostalgia. The halcyon days are not coming back.

A spit of land linked to the rest of Brooklyn by a private-toll causeway in the 1820s, Coney Island began developing as a resort right after the Civil War. An 1868 guidebook listed the wide, sandy shore as the greatest beach on the Atlantic coast, and higher-finish hotels materialised for overnight guests from Brooklyn and beyond. By 1873, weekenders numbered in the tens of thousands.


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A foyer at the exhibition’s entrance contains painted glimpses of those early holidaymakers. Samuel S. Carr’s “Beach Scene” (1879), for instance, bundles a variety of amusements into a single picture. A transportable puppet theatre holds one group rapt, although nearby, a loved ones poses stiffly for an itinerant tintype photographer. In the background, a beruffled toddler, shaded by his nanny’s umbrella, perches on a donkey. An additional of Carr’s paintings depicts a father-son acrobatic team surrounded by smartly dressed bystanders.

Samuel S. Carr’s ‘Beach Scene’ (c 1879)©Smith College Museum of Art

Samuel S. Carr’s ‘Beach Scene’ (c 1879)

Inside a few years, railway connections opened access to day-trippers, and a bouquet of fantastical parks sprang up to delight them. The nation’s 1st rollercoaster opened there in 1884, and Steeplechase Park quickly followed. Leo McKay’s panorama (1903-6) portrays an otherworldly location exactly where thrill-seekers could take to the track on mechanical horseback, cruise on naphtha-powered gondolas along Venetian canals, plumb Dante’s infernal regions, or take a cyclorama trip to a green-cheese Moon. They could also ride genuine elephants.

The elephant recurs like a undesirable dream in this exhibition, an emblem of mindless exoticism and exploitation. In 1885, James Lafferty constructed the “Elephant Hotel”, a 122-foot tall animal with tin skin and glass eyes that straddled the beach like a Colossus of Brooklyn. The hind legs hid the staircase to the torso’s 31 rooms and ocean views.

The landmark rising from a bed of lights was the first glimpse that immigrants got of the United States, even just before they entered New York Harbor or set eyes on the Statue of Liberty. It stares out of posters for Barnum and Bailey’s travelling “Coney Island Water Carnival”, which was staged at indoor arenas all through Europe and featured a water tank 376ft extended and 40ft wide. The beast itself became an icon of American hedonism as the hotel devolved into a brothel and the phrase “Seeing the Elephant” became code for louche adventures. The structure burnt down in 1896, its notoriety soon eclipsed by a real pachyderm’s demise.

In 1903, Topsy, an Asian female with a properly-cultivated reputation for nastiness, was poisoned, electrocuted and strangled ahead of a small gathering of reporters and guests — as well as a film crew from the Edison Manufacturing movie company. The gruesome footage, originally meant to be viewed on coin-operated kinescopes, can be seen at the museum. It can’t, however, be forgotten. This nightmare of sadistic sensationalism was dreamt up by the exact same hucksters who built the ethereal amusement mecca, Luna Park.

Coney Island toggled between “America’s Playground” and “Sodom on the Sea”, and the artist who greatest understood its fusion of joy and darkness, of the beautiful and the grotesque, was Reginald Marsh. In the course of the Depression, even though his peers waded into politics, Marsh turned his gaze upon tawdry emporiums of distraction and escape. In paintings like “Wonderland Circus” and “Pip and Flip”, the amusement park appears as a sulphurous dream, where half-clad beauties mingle with seedy sailors, barkers and freaks. Marsh’s populism bears a lurid sheen: the canvases explode with exposed flesh and wallow salaciously in “entertainments” enjoyed by individuals of every race and class.

The second world war saw the apex of this democratic idyll. Gasoline rationing produced subway excursions the only available kind, and soldiers on their way overseas lingered and mingled with temporarily liberated girls. A 1943 painting by Yasuo Kuniyoshi — labelled an enemy alien right after Pearl Harbor — depicts a blond sailor on the boardwalk seeking out to the Atlantic whilst the Asian woman he will leave behind clings to him, her face a mask of despair.

The show largely averts its gaze from the neighbourhood’s postwar decline. The fade-out was gradual and incomplete. Low-cost gasoline permitted middle-class New Yorkers to flee the scorching city for Lengthy Island’s pristine beaches. A poorer clientele kept the faith but couldn’t support the fancier establishments. Street gangs expanded their turf, and city government sealed the area’s reputation as a dumping ground for the poor by ringing it with higher-rise public housing projects. In 1964, Fred Trump (father of The Donald) gleefully razed the legendary Steeplechase Park, but never ever managed to replace it with something.

Ruination can be great for art, and even an exhibition that would prefer not to know contains a few moving documents of that decay. Robert Frank’s 1962 series “Fourth of July” has a racial subtext. 1 black man contorts in his sleep, the sand about him flecked with garbage. An additional, lying in the shadow of the iconic Parachute Jump, appears like a corpse in a body bag.

Diane Arbus basked in the gloom. Her “House of Horrors” lights up the empty Spook-A-Rama with a raw flash. She lays bare the artificial machinery of fear, opening a dimension of absence and death. She’s even more explicit in her photo of a man garrotting a woman in the “Wax Museum Strangler”.

This inanimate scene of shuddering violence, and Arbus’s description of it, reads like a requiem for Coney Island, a neighbourhood brutalised, emptied and left for dead: “Still and always, in the murky half light behind the chicken wire, murderers and their victims grapple silently and ambiguously for the final lasting time in the scuffed footwear and crumpled stockings and faded wallpaper of their hell where practically nothing ever happens or stops taking place.”

To March 13,

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Section: Arts

Comparing Presidential Candidates&#039 Language To Books In &#039The New York Instances&#039



Josh Katz discusses his most recent graphic “Matching Candidates With Books They Sound Like” for “The Upshot” in The New York Times. The piece compared the speaking types of different presidential candidates to word options in well-known books based on how complex, optimistic or damaging the candidates’ speeches are.

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Picasso Sculpture, Museum of Contemporary Art, New York

'Baboon and Young' (1951) and 'Head of a Warrior' (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York©2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights

‘Baboon and Young’ (1951) and ‘Head of a Warrior’ (1933). Photo: 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS, New York

Picasso, that perpetual wizard, enchants New York when again with a show of his exuberantly creative, category-busting, mind-expanding sculpture. Just when items at the Museum of Modern Art were beginning to get actually depressing, curators Ann Temkin and Anne Umland have mounted a heady expedition across what seemed like nicely-scouted terrain. “Not another Picasso blowout!” I muttered when it was initial announced, but I was incorrect to grumble. This show burbles with the joy of an artist cavorting in his personal imagination. I wended my way via each gallery with a smile affixed to my face, savouring the jokes, the sensuous physicality of his labours, and the obvious pleasure he took in his talents.

I thought I knew Picasso, but I had no concept of the riches his sculptures include. They have been not much seen in his lifetime, and they make up a reasonably tiny proportion of his enormous output: “only” 700 works, compared with 4,500 paintings. Nevertheless, even if he had by no means place brush to canvas — if he had in no way made “Guernica” or invented cubism or had a Blue Period — I would revere him on the strength of this show alone.

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Picasso spat out sculptures in brief bursts, then abandoned the medium for years at a time. Each phase in his paintings finds a parallel in wood, paper, plaster, ceramic, and bronze but the sculpture exudes an expansive spirit, a free of charge-flowing experimentation that he kept consolidating in paint. In the very first room, we see the influence of African sculpture on his early wood carvings, whose ravaged surfaces make Gauguin’s appear polished. A female “Head” from 1907 resembles a figure from “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, painted that same year, but she appears more crazed and jagged, her eyes gouged with passion, her mouth scooped into a hideous leer. Picasso tapped into the sacred and magical aspects of African sculpture even as he thrilled to its purely formal qualities. Later on, lengthy after he had left “primitive” art behind, he cherished his sculptures’ totemic presence, maintaining them about the property as domestic spirits until his death.

Untrained as a sculptor, he felt none of the academy’s constraints. From the scarred wood statuettes he progressed instantly to the classic types of “Apple”, a deconstructed plaster fruit that might have sprung from Cézanne’s boldest futuristic dreams. In “Guitar” (1912), Picasso broke new ground with disarming nonchalance. A few scissor-clips were all he necessary to totally free the line from the page, yanking it into 3 dimensions and springing it from the constraints of illusionism. The sound hole juts forward — not a void but a thing projected into the viewer’s domain — although the instrument’s physique dissolves, plane by plane, into space. Early viewers had been mystified by this cardboard construction and a sheet-metal sequel of 1914: “What is that?” they asked, according to the poet André Salmon: “Does that rest on a pedestal? Does that hang on the wall? Is it a painting or sculpture?”

Picasso blasted open the gate amongst painting and sculpture. “We were . . . liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres,” Salmon wrote. “The Orator”, a plaster-and-stone building from 1933, confronts us with the sweep of an urgent arm. But stroll about him and you’ll see that he is all façade his flattened rear remains as unadorned as the back of a canvas. Other pieces are thoroughly conceived in the round. The museum has gathered all six versions of the painted bronze absinthe bottles, which corkscrew spasmodically, demanding to be circled.

Picasso swings dizzyingly from commanding volumes to feathery wisps. The heavy bronze “Woman with Vase” (1933), is an assembly of blobbish body parts shooting off in all directions. Later, he tore a crumpled napkin, poked it with a burning cigarette to generate haunted eyes and a twitching nose, and dubbed it “Head of a Dog”. But even such a small and perishable scrap can loom. Brassaï photographed the paper pooch, turning it into some thing huge, ancient and menacing, like the golden mask of Agamemnon. He performed the very same trick on “Relief”, transforming a small corrugated wedge of plaster into a wonderful ruined temple. (The curators have broken out 25 Brassaï photos of Picasso’s sculptures into a separate little show that, unbelievably, manages to enhance the prodigious originals.)

However he flirted with abstraction, Picasso constantly cherished his subjects: people, beasts, bottles and guitars emerge out of lines and planes. He comes across here as a godlike imp, blowing life into inanimate components, developing a planet out of detritus. During one specifically mischievous period in the 1940s, he gathered pebbles and carved cartoon eyes and attributes into their polished surfaces, turning them into prehistoric talismans or Cycladic figurines.

I was taught to think of Picasso as the Ur-modernist, the initial and greatest of the 20th-century avant-garde. But his sculpture teaches an totally different lesson. The radical cubist phase, when he dissected space and time, was just one particular short episode in a quicksilver career that spilled into every conceivable style. Baroque, classical, rococo, “primitive”, outsider — all run by means of a body of function united by his unmistakable hand and uncommon sense of humour. I can think of only a handful of other artists — Leonardo, Daumier, Klee, Dalí, Koons — whose work twinkles with the exact same good cheer, and none with such an in depth comic arsenal. He was a virtuoso at caricature, visual puns, and the wild assemblage of unlikely parts into a flawless whole. The giant neoclassical “Head of a Warrior” (1933) charms us with its bulbous nose, hint of a grin, and protuberant tennis ball eye.

One particular of my favourites is “Baboon and Young” (1951), in which the simian mama’s smiling muzzle is composed of two model cars. Her ears come from broken cup handles, and her tail is an automotive suspension spring. MoMA’s bronze iteration smooths more than the rough meeting of components, but the spirit of sublime silliness persists. Possibly that’s the secret of his genius: Picasso’s gifts were cosmic, but he treated them like toys.

To February 7,

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Section: Arts