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

Repetitive Affect: Ragnar Kjartansson at the Reykjavik Art Museum

Ragnar Kjartansson, God I feel so bad, 2008

In addition to the many treats of my recent trip to Iceland, the Reykjavik Art Museum had the exhibition Ragnar Kjartansson: God, I Feel So Bad on view, the first museum exhibition of the performance artist in his home country. The extensive exhibition ranges over time and medium, from early drawings to elaborate recent performances. Its title, selected by the artist, comes from a 2008 drawing that is on display and suggests the mood of playful pathos that finds more performative expression in other works on display. Kjartansson says: “I like that title a lot. It’s both true and ironic, precisely the way I feel everything is. Duplicity is everywhere. The works all revolve around how bad I feel and how everybody feels bad, and how you try to giggle when you face the abyss.”

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Woman in E, 2016-7 

Cue the music. The tenor of the show is struck–literally–in the live performance Woman in E. I could hear the E-minor chord, resonating through the space, when I first entered the museum. As I made my way toward it, in one of the first rooms of the exhibition, I was confronted by fluttering gold steamers. They obscured my view of the plaintive noise source. Parting the gold curtain and entering, I discovered a woman in a gold-sequined gown standing on a rotating plinth of more gold streamers. At regular but not rhythmic intervals, she struck the E-minor chord of her gold Fender electric guitar. The jolt from each note is strong and individual rather than forming a melody. E-minor has thoughtful, melancholic connotations. The statuesque presence of a women on a pedestal and the title suggest a synesthesia between music and visual art, between the works of classical composers and classical sculpture. A rotating cast of local performers enact this spectacle until September 3, when it will be replaced by another performance.

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Kjartansson is an increasingly well-known artist internationally, with solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., Palais de Tokyo in Paris, New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and the Guggenheim Museum Balboa. In 2009, he became the youngest artist to represent Iceland at the Venice Biennale, and his S.S. Hangover project sailed across the Harlem Meer as part of Creative Time’s 2015 “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” exhibition. Kjartansson’s work has been said to combine theater with experiments in repetition and endurance, as a piece like Woman in E suggests. Affect can mean an instinctual reaction to stimulation rather than the result of a complex intellectual process, and it suggests the sensory and emotional realms. The works on view in the exhibition are often repetitive but always affective. The combination productively undermines, intensifies, and calls into question the relation of the one quality to the other. Does the repetition nullify the affective qualities? Or does it mount to an ever more intense catharsis? Is the work of art a saving grace or a hollow gesture?

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Installation shot, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist (2015), Four-channel video

Kjartansson himself has said: “All the longing to make something great — but it’s never great; it’s always mediocre. And I just love that. I just love it when human beings are trying to achieve something and it sort of doesn’t happen. I think it’s the ultimate human moment.” That ethos is on view upstairs, in the most complex work in the show, World Light – The Life and Death of an Artist. Filmed in Vienna in 2015 with a crew of friends and family, the four-channel video installation documents some twenty hours of an attempt to perform Halldór Laxness’s novel World Light. Against handmade backdrops, we see actors waiting, idle chatter, the rap of the clapperboard starting a scene, the performance of the scene until finished–or until a line is flubbed, a laugh erupts, and the scene begins again. Kjartansson is there too, seen in shots directing or interrupting the scene, in a trademark white tux, with hair slicked back, like a 1950s crooner. Happening concurrently on four large facing screens in a darkened room, its impossible to watch them all, much less discover the plot. The action is that of the group filming rather than the novel itself, but even that lacks a narrative arc. Rather, it shows the seemingly endless process of filming. It’s point is perhaps that flawed striving for an elusive transcendent, in this case the transformative art experience. The human realm reaches up for the exalted work of art, but it lies just beyond the grasp, like the plot of the novel for the viewer.

In the final room of the show, whose noise echoes out into the hallway where it competes with the softly throbbing E from the other part of the building, is an ongoing screening of A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14). It is a recorded performance of the band The National playing their 3-minutes song “Sorrow” for six hours in front of a live audience at MoMA PS1, and it solidifies the idea that endurance is required. The experience of watching it is like having an earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head). You kind of like it, then you tire of it, but it keeps popping back up. It begins to sound different and you start to hear all the possible nuance and inflection. Sorrow is a conceit that Kjartansson has tackled before. Is it cathartic to repeat the exploration of such full-fledged emotion? The emotive lyrics of the song become emptier, as with repetition one is reminded that they are sung by rote rather than by real feeling. It reminds how lyrics are indexical, a pointing back at some original feeling, even if they feel real when performed. And yet, to keep going, to keep singing, suggests a kind of faith in absolution, a belief in the act of singing and the artifice of catharsis as truly valuable.

On view at the Reykjavik Art Museum through September 24, 2017.

Tea, Tradition, and Tom Sachs at the Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation shot, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Participating in a tea ceremony at the Noguchi Museum as part of Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony felt like a highly controlled experience from the beginning, as are traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. There were many instructions: fill out a form at least a week in advance, watch three videos detailing Sachs’ studio process (enjoyable spoofs(?) on rules: Ten Bullets, COLOR, and Love Letter to Plywood), show up an hour before the event, and then wait to see if you receive a text selecting you to participate. So for unprepared me, this meant a hurried bike ride to the Noguchi Museum on a Sunday morning and not a little bit of anticipation after such investment. “Greetings” came the text around 11:45 am: “You have been selected..”

Garden shoes for the Tea Ceremony performance

Garden shoes for the tea ceremony performance

I had applied for a 12 pm Tea Ceremony with Johnny Fogg because it appealed to my interest in Tom Sachs and how his work would translate into this kind of event, but honestly I had no idea what was involved. As I learned, these tea ceremonies, held Tom Sachs-style and hosted by Johnny Fogg, present long-standing and complex Japanese ritual in new guise, complementing the Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony exhibition on view in the rest of the Museum. The small retrospective of Sachs’s imperfect, detailed work shows culturally appropriation run rampant with motifs of NASA and McDonalds and objects in plywood, resin, and Sharpie.

I and the other guests were invited to don a garment like a cross between a lab coat and a kimono. We surrendered our phones to a locked box. We removed our own shoes and put on tabi socks and “garden shoes” to prepare ourselves to enter the tea garden. Our host Johnny Fogg introduced himself and led us outside. The tea garden (in this case, the first semi-outdoor rooms of the Noguchi Museum) featured the clearly distinct sculptural work of Noguchi and Sachs. Noguchi is present in minimalist works made from natural materials. Sachs applied his distinctive assembly of mass materials to create a plywood shelter and bench marked United States and three angular “rocks” of grey wood coated in resin. We sat down on them, looking over at a resin-coated cardboard pagoda and lit stove with tennis balls serving as feet for the structure.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Johnny Fogg introduced us to what was about to happen, encouraging questions about the ritual we were about to undergo. While formal, this ceremony would not follow all the rules of a traditional ceremony and that we as guests were not expected to come to it with any degree of knowledge of how to behave. Lucky for me! He offered us ceremonial tobacco, demonstrating the beautiful ember hidden in a mountain of ash, but there were no smokers in our group. The tea ceremony attracted a small group of onlookers who followed us as we paraded across the tea garden in our white coats and strange shoes to a gate. There were also lanterns, a koi pond and, perhaps less clearly related to Japanese tea gardens, an airplane lavatory.

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We were formally led through the gate and instructed in how to cleanse our hands at the hand washing station. Then we were led to the tea house. Leaving our garden shoes outdoors, we entered through the low door on our butts and sat on tatami mats in a 9 x 9 foot room. A plastic kettle, a scroll painting featuring Muhammad Ali for a small shrine called a tokonoma (reading in characters: “It Ain’t Bragging If You Can Back It Up”), and a white plywood contraption labelled with numbers were the other objects in the room. We paused to meditate, the timer Johnny set to 90 seconds ending with a loud BUZZ.

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Space Suit, 2007–11, Tyvek and mixed media

Finally, after this preparation, the tea ceremony could begin, not with tea–as I expected–but with sake. It appeared on a tray through the door behind our host in neat resin cups and saucers. Next came a Ritz cracker with a smear of peanut butter (“the brown wave”). Then Johnny Fogg placed an individual Oreo on its own small platter before us (“the sun at midnight”). Each course came on its own tray and required individual presentation. Then we arrived at the matcha–matcha, fine green tea powder, is blended with hot water to create a cup for each guest. The cups were uneven, handmade white ceramic vessels with NASA across the front, not particularly matched. One was simply all black. Johnny made each guest a cup of matcha, going through several steps of dusting off the already clean equipment, pouring water, and sifting matcha. It involved many pieces of re-purposed equipment, including a Yoda PEZ dispenser. We each drank in turn. We discussed the history of tea ceremony in Japan and, for newbies, our impressions of matcha. The watching crowd dispersed over time, and the quiet sounds around the room–of birds or wind–became more apparent. I felt more open to the other participants sharing this intimate space with me.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Finally, we played games. This was not a competitive environment. We each raked a rock garden in turn  and admired what others did before and after us. Then we were handed a Sharpie, presented brand-name toward us, and a sheaf of white paper. The game was to do whatever we wanted with these materials. I made a paper airplane, then started drawing. And kept drawing. Eventually Johnny’s voice rather than the buzzer interrupted us–he hadn’t wanted to stop us since we were all so intent, so he had turned it off. The tea ceremony was over, we exited, put back on the garden shoes, walked to the entrance, removed our gear, and said goodbye.

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Installation view, Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony, Noguchi Museum

Japanese tradition and the forces of modernity appear both in the work of Noguchi and Sachs, albeit materializing in very different aesthetics. Yet it is invigorating to the Noguchi Museum to create room for such a comparison in their space. And the performative element of the tea ceremony really allowed the space itself to breath, creating an awareness of you the viewer in the space and the object before you, a consciousness that feels very in tune with Noguchi’s work.

Tea ceremonies with guest participants will be performed through July 24 as part of the larger exhibition Tom Sachs: Tea Ceremony on view at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City.