Fire, Humor, and Water: Videos by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group at Asia Society

Installation view with FX Harsono’s 1998 Burned Victims in foreground

Several provocative video works in After Darkness: Southeast Asian Art in the Wake of History, on view at Asia Society through January 31, caught my eye, notably ones by FX Harsono and the Propeller Group. The curators chose the works in the exhibition not as a survey of art from Southeast Asia–there are only 7 artists and 1 collective from 3 countries–but because they speak to the role contemporary art can have in countries struggling with reform, free speech, and democracy. FX Harsono uses blowtorches and chainsaws in aggressive performances that express rage at political events in his native Indonesia. Of a later generation, the Propeller Group, a collective of three artist connected to Vietnam, use humor in their polished video works to point to lingering dissonances in contemporary Vietnamese society.

FX Harsono. Detail, Burned Victims, 1998. Burned wood, metal, shoes.

Destruction and Burned Victims are literal titles for these late ’90s video performances. FX Harsono performed Destruction in 1997 as a response to concerns about voter fraud under president Suharto’s authoritarian New Order government. In it, he destroys theater masks resting on three chairs, which represent the three political parties then vying for power. Couched as a piece of public theater–with Harsono in traditional make up and the masks referring to puppet theater–it was also an act of civil disobedience. At that moment, assembly of more than five people was illegal in public space. Harsono attacks and destroys the wooden masks, first by chainsaw and then by blowtorch, in front of onlookers.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

FX Harsono. Still, Burned Victims, 1998. Performance video with sound; 8 minutes, 41 seconds.

Burned Victims memorializes a protest in 1998 against Suharto that turned violent–rioters locked civilians inside a shopping mall in Jakarta and set the building on fire. The sculptural installation is equally grisly–a row of charred, torso shaped pieces of wood suspended on metal frames, each of which has a pair of burned shoes at the end. The different pairs of burned shoes turn what might be a more abstract sculpture into something much more stark and horrible, reminding of the individuality of the victims of the fire. In the video performance, Harsono douses the torsos with gasoline and lights them on fire. Signs with slogans of Riot burn, and Harsono places another sign in front of the audience: “Who is responsible?”

The Propeller Group. (Still) The Dream, 2012. Single-channel HD video; 4 minutes, 20 seconds.

The Propeller Group, who had an exhibition last year at James Cohen gallery, strike a different tone. Their two video works use humor to critique society in a more distant and subtle approach than Harsono’s outraged cry. One, called The Dream, shows a Honda Dream motorbike that, strategically placed overnight on a city street by the artists, is dismantled of its parts by various thieves as the night wears on. The skeleton of the bike is on view in the gallery in front of a time-lapse video of the night. It is quite humorous to watch this ubiquitous Vietnamese status symbol disappear over the course of the night. Behind the joke, the Propeller Group also comment on the corrosive elements of capitalist change that has swept the nominally Communist state.

Installation view of The Dream at Asia Society, featuring stripped down body of Honda Dream motorbike in foreground

The second work that they show, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, consists of two facing monitors–one plays Viet Cong promotional footage from 19631 and the other shows present-day foreign tourists shooting old AK47s leftover from the Vietnam war. The tourists mug for the camera as they gleefully enacting war scenes. Both videos are about the Cu Chi Tunnels, underground passages used by the Viet Cong to combat the U.S. during the Vietnam war that are outside Ho Chi Minh City. The same soundtrack and captions overlays both, highlighting eerie parallels despite the disjunct in time and purpose. Both the old propaganda and the new tourist site are distant from the carnage and suffering that characterized the lived experience of the war, and indeed, instead seem designed to perpetuate such history as war games.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

The Propeller Group. Still, The Guerrillas of Cu Chi, 2012. Two-channel synchronized video installation with sound; 20 minutes, 4 seconds.

From the far end of the exhibition galleries comes the sound of rushing water. Already, in contrast to blowtorches and AK47s, the use of water rather than fire or guns strikes a less violent note. In this video performance, Harsono writes his name in Chinese characters over and over again. The artist is ethnically Chinese, a minority in Indonesia, and in the face of discrimination against the language and culture, he only learned the Chinese characters of his name as an adult. We watch from the other side of the glass panel as the strokes of black paint begin to overlap and take up more and more of the surface, growing into a black mass. Suddenly water pours down from above, washing away the ink even as the artist keeps making the motions with his hand. Rather than water as a cleansing agent, here water is a deluge sweeping away the artist’s Sisyphean efforts in a show of force and might.

FX Harsono. Writing in the Rain. 2011. Video performance

Indirect and Unsettling: “False Narratives” at Pierogi Gallery

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones 2012, Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches

Nadja Bournonville, A Collection of Small Grey Stones, 2012. Analog C-Print, Edition #3/3 + 2 A.P., 29 x 23.25 inches.

A lady in a dress the color of a Madonnas, its rich folds of blue against the crumbling texture of a pale wall. Her hands clasped in a lady-like manner in her lap. Her tissue thin grey medical mask awkwardly covers the front of the face, where there should be sight. This photograph by Nadja Bournonville and its blinded subject opens the excellently strange group show “False Narratives” at Pierogi‘s new Lower East Side location, appropriately enough as it thematizes the potential for brokenness, puncture, and error beneath a deceptively smooth surface. Bournonville’s body of work takes the invention of hysteria as its subject matter, asserting that Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot largely created the disease with the technological aid of photography in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Bournonville represents the spectacle of this endeavor in poetic images of the anonymous female restrained by science and studies of playful pseudo-medical machines that recall the work of Eva Kotatkova.

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010, Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel

Tavares Strachan, Dislocated remnants from simultaneous events, Providence, RI, (Broken windows diptych), 2010. Plexi-glass, glass, plastic, wood, metal, 34.5 x 39 x 6 inches each panel.

The detailed backstory, rooted in the imagined violence of another time and place, that underlies Bournonville’s photographs resembles the approach taken by Tavares Strachen in his pair of matching windows set into the gallery wall. Strachen’s duplicate white-framed windows were created with precise breaks and the gallery floor is littered with broken glass below. He modeled them on a specific window in a disused industrial building in Rhode Island. There, the artist actually replaced existing windows with matching broken ones. This discreet gesture for noone becomes immediately visible in the gallery space. Paradoxically, while the work becomes more clear, it also becomes less pertinent to the viewer, far removed from the original context. Yet the work takes on new meaning in the gallery space, accentuated by the title that refers to it as a diptych. Painting has long been credited with providing a view onto an imagined vista; here, the cracked glass presents only the gallery wall and the dim reflection of the peering viewer’s face.

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004, Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches

Brian Conley, Decipherment of Linear X (X-Ca-Bc-006), 2004. Archival digital print, Edition 2 of 5, 20 x 13.5 inches.

One can more easily draw a formal similarity between Bournanville’s photographs and the “Linear X” body of work by Brian Conley. Both present strong photographs in delicate palettes emphasizing texture and nuance. Both track down obscure paths with rigour: Bournanville, a historic medical and cultural phenomenon, while Conley applies his investigation of Linear X markings as if he were a scientist studying remnants of an ancient language rather than the stray markings of a beetle that he found on a stick in the woods. Conley’s work expands across the room with a glass vitrine featuring loose pages and a display of the artist’s book on the subject (which mimics a scientific volume), a corner of huddled sticks, and photographs and plaster molds along the walls. Conley’s premise, rooted in a known lie, is on one hand futile as a way of knowing the world and on the other creates an intriguing parallel universe.

Installation view of Brian Conley's work

Installation view of Brian Conley’s work

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches

Roxy Paine, Meeting, 2016. Birch, maple, epoxy, apoxie, LED lights, acrylic light diffusers, enamel, lacquer, oil paint, damar varnish, paper, steel, aluminium, stainless steel; 130.25 x 97.5 x 58.5 inches.

Unlike these other works, rich in backstory, Roxy Paine’s diorama offers you no such guidance. Instead this fabulously constructed miniature beckons you from the far wall as you walk in, brightly lit as if by fluorescent light and featuring a prototypical American conference room. It brightness and skewed perspective to create the convincing illusion of scale hurt my eyes up close as I tried to mine its details to learn more. The scene is resolutely banal and rejects any narrative. Empty spaces maintain a psychological resonance when presented to a viewer looking in, or at least an air of expectancy. It highlights the dourness of industrial grade carpet, overpowering fluorescent lighting, stained ceiling tiles, the cold metal of folding chairs, and middling hot Folgers coffee, but to unclear purpose. By similarly indirect means as the other artists in the show, Paine tells a story, only his is seemingly without a plot or characters.

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012, Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches

Nadja Bournonville, Medical Machines #5, 2012. Analog C-print, Ed. of 3, A.P. #1/2, 8.75 x 11 inches.

Enigmas and ruptures smoothed over by a cool perfection make for a surprisingly cohesive summer show from the disparate group of artists. Catch it while you can. Pierogi has regular gallery hours through the end of July and then by appointment through August 12.

Review on Burnaway: A “Cryptophonic” Sound Art Event

Sacred Harp singing by Jesse P. Karlsberg and Sacred Harp singers at "The Cryptophonic Tour" at Oakland Cemetery on May 2, presented by the collective Callosum.

Sacred Harp singing by Jesse P. Karlsberg and Sacred Harp singers at “The Cryptophonic Tour” at Oakland Cemetery on May 2.

“Imagine 11 graveside sound art installations, four musical performances, three graveside chats, one continuous Widow’s Walk performance, and five hours in which to see it all. This was the scene at Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery on Saturday, May 2. A crowd of art lovers, babies and dogs in tow, came to see and hear “The Cyptophonic Tour” in the cemetery’s 48-acre “rural garden.” The event, which received funding from Idea Capital, was an audiophile’s dream orchestrated by the sound art group ROAMtransmissions, a project of Atlanta’s Callosum Collective. ROAMtransmissions curated the content and co-produced it with Arts at Oakland, a new annual arts day series at Oakland Cemetery, long a venue for historical tours and lectures—as well as burials.”

Using Oakland Cemetery’s archives and audio collected on the cemetery’s grounds as source material, ROAMtransmissions’ artists presented immersive performances and installations that recounted various narratives about Oakland’s occupants. Head over to Burnaway Magazine to read my review of this sound art event here.