BK and the Point Brazil Lesson
Ever since Burger King reinvented their fries a few years ago, I’ve become a loyalist. (For the record, I’m also Coke, Nike, and mint chocolate chip.) Even so, I almost never go there. Luckily, I’m able to opt out of eating at fast food chains so they have become mere symbols and reminders of my suburban upbringing. I regard them with equal parts disgust and nostalgia. Disgust because the McDonald’s in San Mateo’s Hillsdale Mall was the site of some violent juvenile delinquency, where the cold mechanisms of teenage power were laid bare. Fights broke out, fights were negotiated for later, loud mouths ruled. Nostalgia because it was also exactly where I wanted to go eat a lot of the time, and so did everyone else.
These last few years eating out in New York has become a stressful bloodsport (or had it always been this way?), built around the promise of adventure, experience, and authenticity. Did you go to that pizza spot in Brooklyn run by an old Italian guy? It’s in the middle of nowhere and you need to get there at 4pm or be ready to wait an hour for a plain slice, but it’s SOOO worth it! What about the dingy food court in Flushing with the hand pulled noodles? Nobody speaks English. You HAVE to go! The urbane diner wants artisanal character, immigrant charm, and chefs that are brooding intellectuals able to conjure taste portals to another time and place. They want a story with their meal.
Where does this leave fast food mainstays who have been doing it their way for decades? Quick, Cheap, Consistent. They have begun to adapt to the foodie landscape by offering salads, experimenting with new burger hybrids, emphasizing customer service, and redesigning their interiors. This last development is interesting to me, ripe with possibility. With a little imagination and a lot of insurance, they could become a space for contemporary art that suits the community they’re in.
If you go into the Burger King in Flushing, Queens, you’ll see groups of older Asians hanging out on weekday afternoons, all day, treating it as their de facto community center. A nearby McDonald’s was the the site of a contentious territorial beef last year when a group of Korean seniors regularly occupied choice tables for hours having only ordered coffee and possibly some fries.
These patrons, and the diverse families, grinders and transients that pass through for an affordable meal, certainly aren’t looking for top notch art or history exhibitions, so how would you begin to curate something specifically for them and in line with the aesthetics and real life functions of this type of gathering space.
Curating an exhibition at Burger King comes with built-in limitations. Color schemes are predetermined by the brand identity of the franchise, signage and promotional displays must be given central visual placements, and your audience is focused on where the ketchup, napkins and straws are, not on anything hanging on the walls. Beyond that, would customers even give art the attention it demands, much less notice it? Would anyone care? Probably not, but for once, art doesn’t matter (that much) because here at Burger King, the art would be in complete service of the dining experience. Art should be background, decoration.
So why bother curating a show at the local BK if we’re only talking about interior design? First of all, to enact an important curatorial lesson I gleaned from frequenting Point Brazil, a Brazilian buffet in Astoria, Queens: if you own a Brazilian restaurant, hang pictures of Brazil. In other words, keep it simple. Know who you are and who you’re curating for. Secondly, there aren’t enough opportunities to stumble across contemporary art in Flushing. Challenging new art shouldn’t only be shown where it’s “convenient” (for whom?), because every community needs great art. Short of a new gallery scene opening up where Crossing Art has been carrying the torch for years, maybe BK can be the neighborhood’s new alternative space. Lastly, for the money. You didn’t think I’d do this pro-bono, did you?
Any exhibition at Burger King must consider the three A’s: Ambience, Appetite, Abstraction. I would start with a selection of Cezanne still lives depicting baskets of fruits and jugs of wine. These blocky compositions presaged Cubism, and modernism’s preoccupation with the ‘how’ of artmaking and by extension, perception, in addition to being touchstones for many contemporary painters. Then, I would include some paintings I saw recently by Lucy Kim. They are made with a touristic craft sensibility – I use this term descriptively, not judgmentally. Her painting/assemblages usually contain subliminally hidden images within relief compositions of noses, lips, ears, birds, and shirts and sportcoats. They are about intimacy, I think.
I’d hang Lucy’s paintings near ones of nighttime darkness by Byron Kim, some of the illest paintings of non-light I’ve seen. I’d include a couple of Edward Hopper paintings – a lonely house on a Maine seashore. Back in New York City, his oil painting of a woman staring into a cup of coffee inside a cafe. Then I’d have to give space to Ann Craven’s painted repetitions of birds and the moon seen through tree branches.
Yuh-Shioh Wong, out in California, has been making some really dope abstract paintings (colorful and jarring, improvised and restrained at the same time) and they would look great in this context. Here is a sampling of their titles: Somewhere in Iceland, i will send you under the road, castle camouflaged by the rose. Staying out in Cali, I’d include some of Ansel Adam’s lusciously printed photographs of Half Dome in Yosemite – I’d try to get permission to have them printed tiny, like 5 x 3 inches.
Finally, I’m thinking of two monumental pieces to anchor the show. First, a painting created during China’s Cultural Revolution titled The New Songs of Ah Xi, 1972. It depicts eight young women cheerfully working the rice fields, rolling hills stretching infinitely behind them until its horizon meets a sparkling, cloud-accented blue sky. These were the anointed heros of Mao’s revolution: young peasants toiling together on the earth, singing brightly as they harvest from a furtile soil.
This would go well with a stock photograph of a middle class family gathered at the dinner table printed on canvas as large as The New Songs of Ah Xi (53 x 84 inches). This family could be White, Black or Hispanic – it doesn’t matter – but they must look happy, at least as happy as those in New Songs. It should be a family of four with pre-teen kids, looking over a bountiful spread in a suburban dining room. The husband and wife should be dressed as if they had just gotten off work from their respective office jobs. The kids: happy to be home with loving parents, eager to devour a home-cooked meal.
I’ve been thinking recently about going back to school to get a PhD, a terminal degree. It’s not a plan so much as a vague notion of something I could maybe think about looking into “soon.” One reason for being noncommittal is not knowing what to study. I could go into contemporary art history, Chinese art history, Asian American art history, U.S. History, cultural or media studies, or isn’t there a PhD in hip hop or something in probably Denmark? All of these are interesting to me, but they also look generically like a list of interesting subjects that a potentially interesting person would want to be involved in.
I like to learn, but despise classrooms. I like process, but am suspicious of structure. I like questions, but not as platforms for intellectual gamesmanship. I like languid philosophical discussions revolving around current events and art, but I’m an American who appreciates sports and the conformity that that implies. Also, I like my job. And being in a PhD program would probably mean losing it or going on a reduced schedule that wouldn’t really work with the demands of the position.
In my position, I’m sometimes self-conscious about what I don’t know in the field that I’m a part of, and this partially drives my burgeoning desire to go back to school. Shouldn’t museum curators be experts in their chosen subjects? Shouldn’t they be able to critically examine this subject from various perspectives, armed and assured with exhaustive references, able to quote relevant sources, then wryly joke about matters of bureaucratic triviality in academia? Wouldn’t a PhD also help in getting grants?
In plenty of worlds, ignorance is good enough. I know nothing about wine, but like the taste of most brands and types. I know nothing about poetry, but I know that when I recently heard John Yau read from a poem that was a response to a critic (the poem was basically a diss track), and utter the line “I eat food with two sticks” that I was listening to something historic, pure with emotion, and also stupidly obvious.
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.
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.
Every two years when the artists list for the Whitney Biennial gets released, emotional and intellectual debates stir about who was left out and what communities went unserved. It was no different this time around as the museum released Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders’ selections for the 2012 version, likely to be the last in the Whitney’s current Marcel Breuer-designed building as it readies for the move to the meatpacking district. My twitter feed and various art blogs streamed early opinions – some expressed relief to see deserving artists finally make the cut, others bemoaned the under-representation of women and minority artists, there was an observation that the list seemed “Artforum-y,” etc.
All the attention is both a gift and a curse for its curators. The biennial, like the Oscar Awards, will always be judged harshly because its grand mission and history to survey the art of the contemporary (American?) moment makes it among the most prestigious group exhibitions to be included in, and also sets up an impossibly ambitious thesis to satisfy. I don’t envy the kinds of conceptual, logistical and political decisions the curators had and will have to face. The most important decisions are out of the way for them: deciding who’s on the final list. A few weeks ago artist and critic Sharon Butler, who writes the blog Two Coats of Paint, anticipating negative reaction to the leaked list, issued a challenge on her twitter (@TwoCoats): “everyone shld curate their 51-artist
So I decided to compile my own imaginary Whitney Biennial artists list, based on my conception of America as always carried along by the undercurrent of race. My decade was the 90s and my biennial would bring forth identity politics. It would look back into the 90s at how the politics of race and ethnicity were argued for, and in what kind of language. It would then recalibrate those debates in today’s terms, upon today’s means of communication and political struggle, to get a picture of racial dynamics now.
I was convinced nobody else thought this way until a few days ago when art critic Claire Barliant mentioned she had also been thinking seriously about art dealing with identity politics. How its moment had passed in the 90s, with much of the work dismissed as “victim” art, never to see critical attention return. What are the real reasons behind this, we wondered. Now was the time to do a show about this work, Claire asserted. A survey of its key works from the past and newer work that takes up the same issues today. We agreed that identity politics in art is well overdue its retrospective and contemporary attention. I was happy to hear someone else be so in tune with what I was feeling and this conversation prompted a revisiting of my list. Claire talked about identity politics as it related to sexual orientation and gender, which I hadn’t considered for my list, but which should be included in any show broadly stated as being about identity politics. I didn’t include those artists here because of time constraints.
Some of the artists in my list (see below) may be upset that their work is seen through this frame, and those that aren’t on it may be disgruntled by the omission (though I doubt that). It was a difficult list to compile, though easier because nothing was at stake. This show won’t go on, and I highly doubt I’ll ever be asked to curate one of these. Having gone through this exercise, I can only imagine the agony of the Whitney Biennial curators as they made excruciating decisions to exclude a lot of deserving artists, many of whom are their friends. But when their biennial opens the light of criticism, envy and adoration will shine brightly on them and the artists they’ve selected. For now, I hope you read these names carefully and maybe do a google search of them. Their work deserves the attention and I’m intoxicated with excitement thinking about their work assembled together some day.
Here’s my list:
Jaishri Abichandani, Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams,Terry Adkins, Elia Alba, Laylah Ali, Blanka Amezkua, Tomie Arai, Nicole Awai, Nadia Ayari, Radcliffe Bailey, Tamy Ben-Tor, Sanford Biggers, Karlos Carcamo, Nick Cave, Patty Chang, Mel Chin, Ken Chu, Seth Cohen, Robert Colescott, Papo Colo, William Cordova, Jimmie Durham, Brendan Fernandes, Benin Ford, Coco Fusco, Chitra Ganesh, Rupert Garcia, Rico Gatson, Mariam Ghani, Renee Green, Alejandro Guzman, David Hammons, Skowmon Hastanan, Leslie Hewitt, Donna Huanca, Arlan Huang, Yoko Inoue, Emily Jacir, Arthur Jafa, Steffani Jemison, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Brad Kalhamer, Jayson Keeling, Swati Khurana, Byron Kim, Terence Koh, Simone Leigh, Shaun Leonardo, Lam + Lin, Bing Lee, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Jeanette Louie, Miguel Luciano, James Luna, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Charles McGill, Yong Soon Min, Ivan Monforte, Irvin Morazan, Yamini Nayar, Manuel Ocampo, Joe Overstreet, Cliff Owens, Fahamu Pecou, Paul Pfeiffer, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Sara Rahbar, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Faith Ringgold, Athena Robles, Rafael Sanchez (the one who had a solo show at Exit Art in 2010), Jacolby Satterwhite, Dread Scott, Seher Shah, Xaviera Simmons, Jeff Sonhouse, Mary Ting, Slavs & Tatars, Sol’Sax, Hong-An Truong, Juana Valdes, Mary Valverde, Kara Walker, Kay WalkingStick, Hank Willis Thomas, Saya Woolfalk, Lynne Yamamoto
I’ve been collecting press releases from art spaces for the past six years, taking them home or to the office after an afternoon of seeing shows in Chelsea, the Lower Eastside, Bushwick or wherever. I dutifully 3-hole punch each one of them and stick them into a binder in case I need to refer back to the name of an artist, or to remind me of a noteworthy show. Many of these press releases are crumpled or folded, dingy with pocket lint.
In spite of its flimsy, cheap substrate (usually photocopied onto letter size paper), the press release is durable and easily produced by galleries that operate at a high speed, churning out month-long shows in an art world calendar that’s absolutely packed with them. First and foremost, these texts aim to catch the attention of art critics and their editors. And because of that, the language skews towards a kind of pop academicism. Much of this writing style, derisively referred to as “artspeak,” has been thoroughly debased by the very critics they hope to attract as being meaningless and unnecessarily opaque. The writing is formulaic, and worse, amateur art theory they argue. In many of these releases, artists “problematize” or “interrogate” subjects.
But looking back on texts from 5 years ago, there’s a certain charm to the whole ritual of writing and producing press releases, especially in the almost outdated formality in announcing that, for instance, “Greene Naftali is pleased to present an exhibition of “Yellow Movies” by Tony Conrad, a legendary New York underground filmmaker, composer, and artist.” I saw this show in January 2007 and reading this text now makes me think of the profound rebelliousness of Conrad’s gesture to, as he states in the release: “dismantle the authoritarian boundaries of film culture…”
Press releases get emailed out to critics and editors in advance of a show’s opening, but most galleries also make them available for free in a self-serve stack at the front desk. And though this writing can easily be found on gallery websites with full color photos, I still like having these papers around without images, just naked words on a page trying to describe, elaborate, elucidate, convince and sometimes hide the intentions of artists.
For a show by Douglas Boatwright in 2006, the defunct Silo gallery states in its press release: “Although seemingly elusive and tangential, Boatwright’s work is focused in its concentration on sensuous light and aesthetic pleasure. One work could serve as both introduction and summary, a multi-layered projection onto the gallery’s curved wall consisting of the text: ‘I know this to be true.’ But the authoritative-sounding statement literally wobbles. The words reach the wall through a stencil that acts as an intermediate screen and hangs by threads in front of the light source, a projection of found footage and home movies.”
This is language anticipating the experience of art and trailing in the wake of that experience. But 5 years later, I can at least read this old document and faintly remember having seen this work, wondering what it was about.
Exhibitions should be designed based on highlights and lowlights from big box retail stores, living rooms, hotels, casinos, greasy spoon diners, construction sites, dry cleaners, elementary school classrooms, supermarkets, and dilapidated warehouses. To the extent that anything can be exhibited in a museum, every space is in fact an exhibition. The best quality of an exhibition is that they end, and therefore take with them the burden of their administration and “scholarship,” a word that is blindly revered within museum practice. No ideas, just scholarship. Instead of the university classroom, curators and exhibition designers should take cues from theater, where everything is a prop, noise is interruption, and darkness is material.
Remember. When designing an exhibition resist the urge to teach something new and instead try to say what everyone knows in a new, slick way. Also, sometimes the best placement of an object is where it first lands when it gets dropped off. Design the exhibition as if it will be a backdrop to a scene in your favorite film.