Shows on Shows on Shows

I’m easing back into this blog thing with an easy assignment: list the most memorable exhibitions I’ve ever seen. I spend so much time looking at shows in galleries, museums, and alternative spaces, but there’s nothing concrete I take away from it since I rarely buy exhibition catalogs. And there’s no immediate processing of what I’ve seen since I don’t write art reviews. But having seen plenty of shows in the last few years, I want to remember what exhibitions shaped how I view art and how I understand the possibilities of exhibition-making. My only rules were to exclude projects I worked on and permanent exhibitions. I didn’t fact check any of these, just went with pure memory, so there may be title and year inaccuracies.

In no particular order:

Robert Smithson, curated by Eugenie Tsai, Whitney Museum, 2000

Welcome at a gallery in Chelsea, 2006 (an exhibition of emerging artists from Iran)

Little Boy, curated by Takashi Murakami, Japan Society, 2007

Art and China’s Revolution, Asia Society, 2010

Black Romantic, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2004

The Whole World is Rotten, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2003

The Downtown Show, Grey Art Gallery, NYU, 2006

Seth Price, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003

Nick Cave, Jack Shainman Gallery, 2008

Hip Hop show (can’t remember title), curated by Franklin Sirmans and Lydia Yee, Bronx Museum, 2002

Arte No Es Vida, El Museo del Barrio, 2010

The DL, curated by Edwin Ramoran, Longwood Art Gallery, 2002

Xaviera Simmons, Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, 2005

Paul Chan, Greene Naftali, 2005

Nikki S. Lee, Jack Tilton, 2000

Patty Chang, Jack Tilton, 2001

Person in the Crowd, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007

George Bellows, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012

Luc Tuyman, David Zwirner Gallery, 2000

Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003

Yuh Shioh Wong, Southfirst, 2007

Narcissister, Envoy Enterprises, 2013

4-channel video installation by an artist whose name I can’t remember, Participant, Inc., 2005

Rafael Ferrer, El Museo del Barrio, 2009

Kalup Linzy, Taxter & Spengeman, 2007

Willem de Kooning, MoMA, 2005

Theresa Margolles, Y Gallery, 2007

Slavs and Tatars, Newman Popiashvilli Gallery, 2006

Sterling Ruby, Metro Pictures, 2008

Claire Fontaine, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, 2003

Korean video artist with installation next to Panorama, Queens Museum, 2010

Felix Gonzalez Torres and Robert Gober, Andrea Rosen, 2005

Zhang Huan, Asia Society, 2006

Martin Kippenberger, Can’t Remember Where (maybe David Zwirner), 2003

The last show at Orchard, 2007

Alec Soth’s Mississippi River series, a gallery in New Orleans, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Flat Tire

We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.

I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.

For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?


Never let me slip, cause if I slip, then I’m slippin’

My tumble down a full flight of stairs the other day at the museum had to be about something. I had just come back from getting a coffee and some pastries for my colleagues. Walking briskly as one does through a space in which they’re exceedingly familiar, I approached the stairs and noticed a new staff member standing there, waiting for the elevator. Wanting to make her feel welcome, I offered an uncharacteristically jovial, “Hi! How’re you doing?” Her response came back muffled against the industrial grumbling of our barely-used elevator.

I remember thinking how incongruous this scene was (her newness and the medieval sound of the elevator), but I kept going and took a step towards the edge of the stairs. I felt my dress shoes, wet from the rain, slip under me. I then tried desperately to land the next step, but completely missed it and was somehow spun 180 degrees as I began toppling over, my butt hitting first at the edge of a stair. Coffee splashed up and rained down on my shirt and face. I noticed the skylight swirling around – a cinematic dislocation from uprightness, like those scenes in Vertigo where San Francisco spins into distortion.

It was like being plunged into a new kind of medium, like trying to swim for the first time and losing your body in the force of the water. I felt each step hitting me somewhere on my lower back and butt, painlessly. And just as I allowed the exhilaration of the accident to wash over me, I landed with a cartoonish thud at the bottom of the stairs. My colleagues raced over in silent, mortified shock, asking how I was. A few laughed along with me as I noticed my left arm stretched upward, death-gripping the cup of coffee. It felt full.

As we sat around reconstructing the events over fruit tarts and coffee, suddenly the brutal poetry of the accident revealed itself. It turned out that Ryan Wong, our young, precocious assistant curator, was in the elevator that our new colleague was waiting for. Picture this: as Ryan was ascending effortlessly, protected and contained in a rising chamber, he heard me crashing clumsily downward, struggling to catch my balance and ultimately failing that. I became a stunt-double version of myself, abstracted and discontinued in the fall. I lost myself momentarily in the avalanche of my own making while Ryan was moved by the museum’s machinery. I sipped my coffee slowly at that thought, the coffee I fought gravity to save.


Hip Hop Ceramics

A few weeks ago I was in Long Island City early for a meeting and wandered into a Slovakian general store to browse around, suspecting that it might stock ceramics from that part of the world. It was a store like many stores that serve specific cultural communities in the city -  products looked unbought and abandoned, displays that made the whole place look like business was beside the point. Past all the preserved foods and exotic snack chips, were indeed a few shelves of pottery: generic mugs and plain flowery vases mostly. And behind a stack of white plates, I noticed a rough textured piece that looked like a Chinese tea cup had been carelessly plopped onto a long, unglazed cone of a stem. The outside was the color of the most unaesthetic dirt – a yellowish brown that couldn’t have been arrived at intentionally.  The inside of the cup was a dark pea green, glazed haphazardly. Hard to imagine drinking out this, but that only added to its strangeness.

The store’s caretaker was stocking shelves when I walked in and he wandered over to see if I needed help. When I asked about it, he offered that it was a kind of wine glass for a special Slovakian liquor made of fermented honey. Convinced and charmed, I bought it, brought it home and arranged it on a bookshelf where other ceramics are kept. Among them, a tiny ivory colored bowl made by a former intern of mine, a jade green vase I bought at the local Korean supermarket, a coal black Japanese cup and saucer I picked up at the flea market at the Tenri Cultural Center here in Flushing.

In moments like that in Long Island City, I’m returned to my unexplainable infatuation with ceramics.

I remember seeing some centuries old plates and vases from what’s now Iraq at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco a few years ago. They were decked out in blues you could only find in fleeting flashes on an ocean’s surface. This blue was nothing but its own color; ultimately transparent and fresh as tomorrow morning. The marks divining its surface were aggressive (I’m not saying violent) compared to the austere Tang Dynasty stuff I had just marveled at in another room. In the next, from another century, the Japanese surface on some of their vessels: cracked and irregular like volcanic earth in some, mirror smooth in others, delivering their own kinds of complexions that were also nothing like the names we have to describe them. “Brown” just wasn’t enough.

In my kitchen cabinet is one of my favorite possessions: a plate with gently sloped sides that I bought in a pan-middle eastern restaurant in Amsterdam. It’s decorated with a briskly outlined fish in the center and multi-colored dots, dabs and strokes all around it. It’s body is built from a thickly formed ceramic and I’m convinced eating out of it makes stuff like my oxtail stew taste at least 10% better. A pair of coffee cups copped in a Berlin flea market that are just the right size, freckled with blue Pollack-y drips – its cultural origins unknown. All I know is that my coffee’s on point from out of that, caffeine rationed to exactly the right amount.

I was at Smack Mellon, an alternative art space in DUMBO, Brooklyn a few weeks back to see an exhibition by Yoko Inoue. In this vast space, Inoue had created her intimately scaled version of a Japanese night market populated by ceramic figures, vessels and masks that were mutant hybrids sampling from global consumer culture. Things were clearly marked for sale, rightfully – ceramics imply the functionality and normalcy of exchange even when, as in Yoko’s case, they’re aesthetic and conceptual vessels. In her work, Japanese-ness bleeds out, from the hand-crafted care we associate with the production of ceramics to the evoked make-shift spaces where deals are done. At dinner, when ceramics fulfill their most obvious task to make life a little bit better, to make daily rituals a little bit finer, is when we’re returned to our most unintelligible selves and when we become psychically connected to the ancients, who must’ve also derived great pleasure from wining and dining on classic material.


T-Shirt Weather

The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?

Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.

For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.

T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.


Shirts ‘n Skins

A lot of years ago, I decided to stop making art. Not because I didn’t like doing it. On the contrary, I was nearly addicted to sitting in front of a painting, getting lost in every last inch of it, obsessing over the relationship between forms and colors, sorting out the next best move. But something changed when I began curating, or it might have been that the decision to curate was a symptom of a larger shift in my own thinking about art and my function within it. In any case, I began to question the very notion of making art into something physical. And that’s when it became clear that I had outgrown artmaking. Because the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like going to the studio to produce art was just an excuse to listen to some new rap on my old Sony boombox.

At that time, curating was an exciting new way to approach art. It was a medium unto itself and its rules seemed as nebulous as any art practice. Over the years, having worked with or in various institutions, I’ve realized that curating is not an alternative way for me to make art. Instead, it’s an administrative discipline involving bureaucracy, management, research, artistic creativity, networking and publicity. Curating is soft coercion, a choreography of information, resources and material towards the production of production. Shows are perpetually in a state of development until that month-long flurry of activity funnels the scraps of work into a cohesive meta-work.

I sometimes wonder how much longer I’ll be a curator, if some other ‘practice’ will overwhelm this interest in organizing exhibitions like how curating usurped artmaking for me. But then I realize that I’m sitting at the convergence of Jeremy Lin’s rise, my own role at the Museum of Chinese in America, and the much touted (and feared) China century. Basketball has somehow renewed and refreshed the substance of what I do. Basketball, through the electric play and hype of Jeremy Lin, has now engaged my racial cognizance, which, now that I think about it, is why I started making art in the first place.

Every time Lin splits a double-team, looks around for open teammates, and goes up hard for a contested layup, I hold my breath, pouring all my stockpiled hopes into the next split second, hoping the ball drops because if it doesn’t, if he gets blocked or turns it over looking to pass, suddenly it would seem that we had lost so much of what he had gained. So much that it would take years for us to get it back, this progress in the perception of Asian Americans, but for him all it would take is a sweet dime to number 7, or a three in the fourth quarter. That’s how much he means, that he can effect my own perception of curating by making it happen on the hardwood.


The City Game

We made it to the NBA. When Jeremy Lin sized up Pau Gasol a few feet beyond the 3-point line during a key moment in the 4th quarter of friday’s New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game, I knew he had him. Gasol, the Lakers’ star center, was backing up as Lin dribbled threateningly towards him. He rose for a long jumper over Gasol’s long, futile reach. Water.

Basketball in New York City. In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm mythologized the sport’s significance to Gotham in The City Game, weaving together anecdotes of the 1969-70 Knicks team that won the championship with back stories of playground legends like Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and ‘The Helicopter.’ “If the Knicks brought a special pride to all New York, they were only multiplying the feeling that the playground kids have always understood,” he wrote.

It’s true that only the success of the Knicks can galvanize and focus New York City basketball interests into pure mania, but since I’ve lived in New York, the Knicks have been a tired joke. For the last decade, the team’s leadership has stacked one star player on top of another in hopes of manufacturing that fleeting magic known in sports as chemistry, or at least buying enough talent to render chemistry irrelevant. But each addition only brought greater disappointment. Madison Square Garden was a place where promising careers went to flounder into incoherence.

Lin was inserted into the Knicks’ lead guard role in pure desperation after a listless start to the season made last year’s gains seem like a mirage. After leading them to five wins in a row with virtuostic performances, he has bridged the 1% row of Madison Square Garden with Korean church pick-up basketball in Long Island City; outdoor runs in the shadow of the 7-train on a 30 degree, windy day in Flushing; rec league games in Upper Eastside gyms; and little kid basketball in legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.

Did you see that move on Luke Ridenour on Saturday? Lin took it hard right then screeched into a crossover. Whoops, sorry! Left Ridenour somewhere out in the forests of Oregon circa 2002, then rained a 15 footer on his head. It was like when Randolph Childress crossed up Jeff McGinnis in the ACC tournament in 1995. Childress motioned for McGinnis to get up off the floor before he drilled a 3. But getting back to Lin.

Asian Americans from California recognize the type: Taiwanese and religious, studious and quiet; there’s something dorky and utterly suburban about him. He crashed on his brother’s couch in the Lower East Side between monster games like a clueless under-rested student. We haven’t yet figured out what Jeremy Lin means, and why this moment feels so historic to us. But even if he is our Jeremy and even if we want to apply the lessons of race to his rise, the most important thing for me is that he’s been tagged by New York’s unforgiving, jaded basketball fans with the most elusive and important of titles: a baller.


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