Here’s the latest from the New Museum: an exhibit co-curated by the Taipei Contemporary Arts Center, entitled “The Great Ephemeral.” This exhibit explores the economic and political trends that define the contemporary global market. Taken out of their context and placed within frames and before lenses, these trends become odd abstractions. Notions of political parties, financial competition, and national identity seem like flimsy trivialities when context is removed. What we are left with is simple human movement, bright colors, and anonymous bricks. Life, it appears, goes on, regardless of the names and significance we give to abstract ideas. It is no coincidence, either, that these particular ideas- of finances and politics- are strong contributors to global conflict. Perhaps the curators of this exhibit are suggesting that simplification is a means for peace.
This is Chelsea Knight’s “Don’t Tread on Me” (2011).
The video is roughly 20 minutes long and comprises two different TVs. The characters in her short film are all supporters of free-market capitalism, though some are members of the Tea Party, and others define themselves as artists, libertarians, or Ayn Rand enthusiasts. These people explain their fiscal views to the audience- one woman states that no one should be able to take away her hard-earned money. It looks like we are watching some kind of political propaganda film. Then the screens start to change bit by bit. In one shot, the image of the woman is doubled. In another, a man speaks to the audience about his beliefs while another woman contorts her body around him, walking slowly across the frame. Organized chaos results, with all of the passionate speakers’ actions devolving into animalistic, repetitive movements in front of the screen. In some shots we see a director tell the figures how to move. What is the meaning of such a strange assortment of camera shots? Why are these people shown sharing their political beliefs and also depicted in a clumsy interpretive dance?
By juxtaposing clips of people explaining their fiscal views with clips of people moving bizarrely, Knight highlights the strangeness of what we call “political views.” We watch people lament and intone their thoughts, and then we watch them writhe physically. The two start to blend together, forcing the viewer to fuse the abstract notion of politics with the physicality of movement. And then what do we have? A breakdown of images: an arm, a leg, an open mouth. A breakdown of speech patterns: No, yes, money. “Don’t Tread on Me” unravels intellectualism until it is as primitive as the biology of the human body. And then, the viewer asks himself, do we really need it?
The highly complex inner-workings of politics are trivialized by the emphasis on the human form. A man in a suit seen twisting and writhing about makes the audience squirm and giggle. He loses some of his commanding presence when seen this way. His words, too, lose some credibility. If all it takes to unravel a political platform is to make a politician do a little dance, then what, Knight asks, is really the point of it all?
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Here’s a very interesting work entitled by “Molyneux,” by Chou Yu-Cheng (2014).
“Molyneux” encompasses one entire wall of the exhibit. Several framed images are stacked one in front of the other. All of the images are careful copies of works by an older artist and friend of Yu-Cheng’s, Geoff Molyneux. In 2012, Yu-Cheng won the Taipei Arts Award Grand Prize. He chose to critique the very system that launched his career by showcasing copies of Molyneux’s works in HIS solo show. In doing so, Yu-Cheng questions why he achieved success and critical acclaim while his artist friend, who created the originals of these works, remained out of the spotlight. Yu-Cheng critiques the institutional framework that new artists often rely on to catch a break in the art world. Why, he asks, must we rely on these institutions? Clearly one artist is not more famous than another due to his talent alone- after all, “Molyneux” is composed of works by a less famous artist. “Molyneux” is a sharp criticism of the way the hierarchy of the art world and its reviews and awards brings some artists acclaim while leaving others in the dust.
“Molyneux” also questions what authenticity and authorship really mean. Is a copy of a piece of art its own piece of art? At what point does inspiration become plagiarism? Yu-Cheng painstakingly copied every centimeter of Molyneyx’s owkrs, and then layered them in front of one another. Is this enough of a change for it to be considered Yu-Cheng’s art alone?
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Lastly, here are two photographs from Nir Evron’s poignant “Threshold” series (2015).
When you looked at these photographs, were you able to pinpoint their location? Exactly. These photographs could have been taken in any developing area, in any place in the world. Would you be surprised to know that they were taken in Palestine? Evron’s self-aware photographs are intentionally devoid of any Islamic symbols. They pointedly inform the viewer that what he or she might think about Palestine- perhaps that it is a land marked at every meter by Islam- is incorrect. The series does not attempt to obscure Islamic symbols. Rather, it showcases scenes that are naturally more anonymous. It is an attempt to shed light on the multifaceted culture of Palestine, from its beauty at dawn to its growing infrastructure. Viewed through this lens, “Threshold” is both a love letter to a beautiful place and an incisive response to ignorant western views of Palestine.
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This exhibit fascinated me because it attacks institutions that we rely on today- political parties, artistic institutions, nation-wide stereotypes- through lyrical, beautiful artwork. I did not walk away feeling attacked in any way, which is often a result of politically charged art. Rather, these artists cleverly make the viewer feel uncomfortable, in order for the viewer to question his or her own worldview. If one looks at “Threshold” and is surprised that the images are of Palestine, then he is embarrassed at his own surprise, and then thinks more deeply about why he was so surprised. In my eyes, that is the greatest thing that art can do: make you think differently about the world. “The Great Ephemeral” does exactly that.
Good news is, you can see this show until September sixth! Check it out.
Until next time,
xoxo, Chloe <3