Archive of Posts by Glen Helfand

Proximities 3: Import/Export

Paper Bag Project, by Imin Yeh (1983). Handmade paper bag. Courtesy of the artist.

Paper Bag Project, by Imin Yeh (1983). Handmade paper bag. Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve come to name my computer files related to the third and final Proximities exhibition P3. I get a little kick invoking Playstations (PS4, the it gamer gift for 2013), Terminator movies (T3, from 2003), and the holiday blockbuster season that is usually cluttered with franchises and their sequels. There’s a second Hobbit film that just hit theaters—H2 (also the shorthand for a junior size Hummer). You certainly won’t mistake this art exhibition, Import/Export, for a cinematic extravaganza, but the show focuses on the material and immaterial aspects of the international ventures that those entertainments very much are.

The inspirations for the artworks in this show reflect the ironies and menacing multi-pronged connections behind objects like the PS4. This piece of hardware, designed and manufactured by Sony, a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation, is a staple brand at the all-American Best Buy retailer (which also sells in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, and China). The software is code produced by outsourced offshore coding in any number of countries. Similarly, many major movie studio titles, particularly those with loads of special effects, are currently huge international productions, with multiple CGI companies in different countries working simultaneously to erase stunt wires or to render digital ice crystals.. The economic implications are intriguing – note the a flurry of controversy when a California-based effects house lost its shirt by underbidding its services for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.

In the Western season of stuff, it’s fascinating to look at product labels that reveal the site of manufacture. No big surprises there—I just checked and my Uniqlo down jacket was, as expected, made in China. But can this information actually communicate to me anything about China, this product’s country of origin? Can this article of clothing literally bring me in physical contact with another place? It might be easy for some people to ignore the implications—Do I really want to know if I purchased a shirt that came from the collapsed Bangladesh sweatshop? And what would I do if I did?

The artworks on view in this exhibition question aspects of raw material, factory production, craftsmanship, value, outsourcing, and the circulation of objects and ideas. I’ve approached the Proximities series with the intent of using different lenses to look at its themes. The shows have presented very different profiles, from colorful (P1), to audibly boisterous (P2), and hushed elegance (P3). The elegant profile of P3 may seem surprising considering the subject of import and export. Perhaps a more expected tone would resonate with Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent photograph from 1999—an irresistibly iconic image of global capitalism and all it’s insidiously kaleidoscopic eye candy—or Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of landscapes ravaged in the service of industry, which, like Hudson River paintings, depict ‘progress’ as luminous and grandiose.Amanda Curreri works

In contrast, the works in Import/Export are monochromatic, prosaic, and abstract in form and meaning. The lighting is moody, and, as Byron Peters’s image of the open sky reveals, the space maintains a quiet grandiosity that feels almost contemplative. Like being in a hall of mirrors, we can see ourselves quietly reflected throughout the gallery space as we engage in breathing, looking, and hopefully rethinking scenarios of production and consumption .

The gargantuan nature of the worldwide system of making and consuming is too unwieldy for neat pronouncements. The environmental, social, physical, and psychological implications are things to ponder, but difficult to reconcile. The goal here is not resolution. The show might be an inconclusive conclusion, but there’s something thrilling about how these artists process the fray into something thoughtful—and strangely beautiful.

Happy Holidays!

 

Proximities 3: Import/Export opens today. For an insider’s perspective, come to the Proximities Evening Event where the curator, Glen Helfand, will be giving an in-gallery talk.

End of Summer

Michael Jang's photograph adorns the banners outside the museum. Photo courtesy Michael Jang.

Michael Jang’s photograph adorns the banners outside the museum. Photo courtesy Michael Jang.

Museum staff are currently installing the second Proximities show, and in the midst of that comes a wonderful sense of discovery. We finally are able to see how the works hang together and interact with each other. I liken the process to the old school photo lab, when sliding an exposed piece of paper into the chemical baths begins to reveal an image. Things come into view gradually, with a thrill in seeing the contours emerge. Knowing Me, Knowing You (a title that was suggested by Proximities 1 artist James Gobel) is named for a melancholy pop song by ABBA. And while I won’t go so far to place the tone of the upcoming show on the gloomy side, the colorful exuberance of the first show is replaced here with a more muted and domestic demeanor.

Mik Gaspay’s tatami mat installation sets things close to the ground in a way that evokes any number of films by Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese film director whose cinema speaks so simply and elegantly of shifting relationships, between generations and between East and West. In the installation, there is a sense of using the agency of Japanese aesthetics evoke the slippery nature of ethnic and cultural identity in more recent days. Looking across Gaspay’s piece at Michael Jang’s black and white photographs of his family in 1973 adds to that Ozu connection, as so many of his films are black and white and tug on the heart strings as they access those loving tensions between elders and youth. Jang’s photos evoke that feeling one gets while paging through a photo album that was just found in the attic.

We expected the images and sounds would blend into something new, but that tone is impossible to predict until the works meet each other for the first. The melded audio to the show is evocatively homey—the grumble of televised voices pervades the room from Kota Ezawa’s animation and via Pawel Kruk’s video reenactment; the bubbling soup pot in Gaspay’s piece signals a family meal; while the high tones of Chinese opera seep from the headphones that accompany Anne McGuire’s video. It’s as if the sounds of a clan are blending together in a house, an abode where everyone is in their own corner before convening for dinner. As in any household, the connections are formed through individuals who reside together, their noises, their obsessions, and the idols they selectively uphold, like posters in a teenage bedroom (Charlene Tan’s nod to Yayoi Kusama, Kruk’s Bruce Lee, Jang’s David Carradine in Kung Fu), and the different emotional tenors they strike. Barry McGee’s installation is yet to come—he’s installing a newly reworked piece that will certainly add another layer of the interpersonal to the exhibition. We’re getting close. The picture develops before our eyes.

Proximities, piecemeal

World on puzzle pieces

Pulling together a multi-part exhibition is an interesting animal, the notions of time and linkages don’t operate in the traditional manner—particularly when there’s a summer hiatus with another exhibition (the fascinating Cyrus Cylinder presentation)  in between. We are more accustomed to quick hits, in getting our curatorial premises out there in one shot. Allowing something to unfold in component parts requires trust and commitment on both sides of the equation—institution and audience—of being able to imagine how things will resonate over time, and space. I like the way SFMOMA’s current SECA exhibition takes place in different locations, allowing for the idea of a group of works to make sense the more pieces you encounter.

In a way, this reflects the challenge of considering Asia as a totality—the term itself encompasses multiple nations, borders, styles, land masses, terrains, religions, ethnicities, languages, foods—the list goes on. The term/concept doesn’t make sense with just one.

Similarly, the Asian Art Museum is an institution that serves a range of publics, each approaching the contents with different filters and expectations. It’s not an easy location to occupy. At the end of the run of the first Proximities show, it was exciting to see a flurry of web and social media conversations that raised some key issues. Questions about the museum’s mission were raised, these bringing to the surface the complicated expectations that audiences place upon the Asian. It was rewarding, though not always easy to parse the implications attached to the project. This was part of the plan, though each show is always a surprise when it makes the shift from something on paper to actual artwork in a space. The component parts bounce off each other in surprising, wonderful ways.

The intention of the Proximities series is that each show stand alone visually, but also that each will add aesthetic, social, and thematic concerns as well as deepening and complicating the questions raised previously. From the back end of the project, it’s an intriguing, shifting view, trying to anticipate how the series will create a complete picture. It’s exciting to see it happen.

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You, which opens in a little over a month, will have a very different feeling than the first show. Where What Time Is It There? was purposefully colorful, hallucinogenic and clouded by the fantastical, Knowing Me is more retro in feel, nodding to ideas of nostalgia as a way in which we know each other. It’s a very different group of artists, with a whole other range of ‘proximities’ to the show’s themes. Further discussions will be raised, but also there will be the opportunity for some celebration—in honor of the show’s title, and its reference to ABBA, we’re celebrating the show with a karaoke afternoon on October 19. It will add a soundtrack to the exhibition, the set list something that may not reveal its meaning until all the voices have sung. Stay tuned!

Proximities in public

Proximities_25Proximities 1 is open to the public and it has been a thrill to see the first phase as an actual exhibition. It looks like it was intended to—lush, colorful, a little bit critical.

The gallery now seems a contemporary interjection between areas devoted to traditional galleries of Korean and Japanese objects, a spot within which to ponder notions of time and place.

As the show faces a public, this is also an opportunity for feedback. The week before the show opened, I began to hear, second hand, questions about who is included in the show—particularly why it is that there are mostly non-Asian artists in What Time Is It There?. The beauty of having the blog platform is that it allows for this issue to be acknowledged. Here are some curatorial notes:

One of the show’s goals is to create new connections between the museum and the local contemporary art public. As I began the process, I considered the idea that the museum was interested in broadening its audience and addressing a community of artists who live and work here.  I began with my own position: Why wasn’t I more connected to the venue? Partly it’s because I am not schooled in Asian art history, and partly because my interests are more focused on contemporary art, which is only sporadically presented at the Asian. I figured I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  (It turned out that a surprising number of the artists in the shows had never actually been to the museum before, and in that regard, the show has begun to do its job of broadening the scope of visitors.) And of course there is always the question of identity as an entry point: Does an artist or viewer have to be Asian or Asian American to consider the subject? Spending time at the museum, it’s clear that the audience and staff are a diverse bunch.

With the first show, I wanted to create entry points for artists and viewers of all stripes. There was a directive from the museum to address “Asia” as a totality, which is a huge, unwieldy theme. I considered artists who had some connection to this vast idea; the more unlikely the connection seemed the most interesting to me. When I told colleagues about the show, they assumed that it would only include Asian artists, making the idea of thwarting expectation all the more appealing. James Gobel, for example, seems like the last person you’d expect to be showing in this particular museum, and yet his abstract painting reveals fitting connections to the themes (Manila being his subject). Hopefully his work suggests more entry points to the museum, and who has a connection to it, than we might initially consider. There are Asian and hyphenate artists in the trio of exhibitions; the artists selected are those who had not exhibited in an “Asian” context before (in upcoming shows you’ll see Barry McGee, Kota Ezawa, Imin Yeh, Michael Jang, and others).

The first show is purposefully about distance from place, about imagining the far away. I was initially inspired by Raymond Roussel’s 1910 surrealist novel, Impressions of Africa, which revels in the notion of the imagined place through a formalized lens. In Proximities, we are viewing the concept of “Asia” from California, in a museum that is very much a constructed presentation of culture and an institution beset with unavoidable cultural baggage. I think the first show offers its criticisms subtly. It’s a small show, but hopefully one that will generate some productive discussion along with its aesthetic pleasures.

Proximities, getting closer

The upcoming exhibition, Proximities, takes place in a single gallery over the next several months, but it’s rooted in a larger dialogue, and metaphorically in various spaces. The show is ostensibly about conceptions of an unwieldy, geographically and culturally vast idea termed “Asia,” but it’s also about engaging different communities and considering the Asian Art Museum’s connection to contemporary art—from Asia and beyond. The series emerged from conversations about institutions and audiences, and how the museum is connected to the large community of artists who live and work in the Bay Area. I’m honored to have been invited to curate this project.

I began by questioning my own relationship to the museum and to the idea of Asian art. In many ways, it’s a specialized field, and one that has aspects of identity embedded—do you have to be schooled or part of the family in order to fully appreciate what is on view in the museum? Sometimes it can seem that way. You could do an informal poll and find similar questions about any number of cultural institutions in San Francisco—the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Mission Cultural Center— that are there to address an invested constituency. Each, however, is very interested in sharing a specific culture, and the set of concerns and ideas that emerge from their perspectives.

Contemporary art also has its degree of insider-ness, its issues du jour, and its rising stars. But these aspects of art tend to get more complicated when the overlays of globalism appear. I’m certain I’m not the only Westerner who calls Cai Guo Qiang the fireworks guy because I’m never quite sure how to pronounce his name. He’s an artist who emerged during a heyday of contemporary Chinese art, yet currently lives in New York. Does that still make him an “Asian artist”? It’s a fascinating question—where we are we in relation to “home”?– which is just one of the subtexts of Proximities. Perhaps a more salient theme is bridging some boundaries between the museum and artists you might not expect to see in it. “Asia” covers a lot of territory. The intention is to use this blog forum to address ways in which the show enters into various locations and ideas. We’re getting closer. Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? opens on May 24.

—Glen Helfand, Curator