The Fox: Yam Lau, Oskar Hüber, Yam Lau, Sophie Nys and Kevin Rodgers

Oskar Hüber, moon video
Oskar Hüber, Gute Nacht!, cardboard box, video (2011)

Curated by Kevin Rodgers

Artmaking is always in some way an arena for subtle thought experiments. If everyday certainties fall away and audiences are left to re-think what they thought they knew, the experiment is a success. It is a commitment to the activity of thought, as opposed to its ossification in “knowledge”, which drives artist Kevin Rodgers’ curation of the Fox.

Setting the stage for the performance of thought, Rodgers’ quotes Hannah Arendt from her book, The Life of the Mind (1978), who warns not to “mistake the need to think with the urge to know.” Thinking, Rodgers’ notes, can be bottomless. The art gallery provides an apt metaphor for concept of a bottomless space; or in Arendtian terms, an interval in time between past and future. Rodger’s curation fulfills this ambition, primarily by being more enigmatic, and more successfully so, than your average art exhibition.

The figures of Arendt and her one time lover, Martin Heidegger, frame the exhibition. Giants of 20th century thought, their romantic liaison stands in contrast to key aspects of their respective philosophical positions. Heidegger, the eponymous fox, pulled the thread of his thinking through the holes provided by the meaning of certain words, such as ‘being’, which are central to the edifice of language. Parsing meaning into ever greater depths of subtlety led the German philosopher, in Arendt’s view, into a trap that suggests reasons why he could disavow culpability for his association with National Socialism.

Today Arendt’s thought enjoys ruddy health, in part due to her glamorous theorization of the public sphere as a realm of authentic living. In the exhibition, Rodgers’ presents the two figures in poster format. A scaled-up portrait of Heidegger is hung close to the ceiling so that he casts a dour gaze down onto the exhibition. As in his philosophical writing, Heidegger exists as a remote presence. For its companion piece, the artist prints a poster of Arendt’s parable about a fox in his lair, who is happily cunning but probably amoral as a result. Thinking about the trap of your own presuppositions offers a potential for release from it, by mere dint of thinking about it. By the same token, historical figures presented in visual form can only stand at the threshold of the ideas they represent. Onus for elaboration of those ideas is a job for the viewer.

The idea of an interval is given literal form by Yam Lau’s A-fold-in-two, in memory of Gordon Lebredt (2011). Lau’s work is a reprise of a collaboration he made with Lebredt, who died of cancer earlier this year, for the now defunct Toronto space Cold City Gallery in 1997. Originally accompanying Lebredt’s series of architectural interventions at Cold City, Lau here presents two off-white metallic slabs hung high up on the wall across the room from each other. Both slabs are bent at a right angle at one end, so they slant out from the wall. Implying sight lines that slice the room in two, at the same time Lau’s work brackets’ the gallery inside the legacy of contemporary art’s rhetoric of forms.

German artist, Oskar Hüber, takes a different approach to the encapsulation of space. Gute Nacht! (2011) presents a luscious, tightly-framed, video of the moon turning on its access that is hidden at the bottom of a cardboard box. By virtue of this simple spatial manoeuvre, a whole world is contained for the benefit of our mastery. Looking down at the work, however, also has the effect of relativizing our own place on the planet. Like David Bowie says, “It’s lonely out in space.” Hüber creates an effective portrait of the limits of our world.

Belgian Sophie Nys’ presents a large-scale reproduction of the cover of Heidegger’s Die Kunst und der Raum (1969) that hangs from the ceiling, and a video shot in the German countryside that features a still photograph of the philosopher and standing in front of his summer hut. Without delving into the content of the book, its title alone, which translates as Art and Space, makes for a nice précis of the exhibition as a whole: art plus life equals the steps we take to negotiate the interval between them.

In his book about photography, Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes formulates the concept of the punctum. Derived from the Latin word for wound, punctum can mean the tiny opening the eye has for the tear duct. In Barthes’ terms, it means the part of the photograph that punctures you, bringing on unexpected emotional associations that may be unrelated to the meaning of the picture as a whole. Although not a show about photography, The Fox has a punctum in it; specifically, a rustic toilet seat once used by Heidegger that Nys’ reportedly spirited away from the philosopher’s summer retreat in the Black Forest.

Making reference to the punctum to talk about artworks is to misapply Barthes’ concept. And yet to say I am pierced by the presence of this particular toilet seat in the show is accurate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the implications ripple outwards. For one, it invites unwelcome thoughts about the German philosopher’s ass and its related functions. Elevating the discussion a bit, the toilet seat also prompts thoughts about real things and their relationship to art. The toilet seat is a real thing and yet its effect depends on the story that comes with it. Nys’ piece is a powerful example of the type of experience the art gallery is uniquely capable of creating. An interval in Arendt’s sense of the term, it offers the viewer a chance to participate in a thought experiment of the truest kind.

The Fox was presented at G Gallery, Toronto, July 14 – August 20, 2011. This text appears in Border Crossings #120

More info about Yam Lau can be found here.

More info about Kevin Rodgers can be found here.

More info about Sophie Nys can be found here.

Residency in RMB City: Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and GestureCloud: Judith Doyle+Fei Jun

Cao Fei,  RMB City, SecondLife  Video Still
Cao Fei, RMB City, SecondLife Video Still, Courtesy of RMB City © 2008
The first time I check out the online community of Second Life, where users interact via 3D avatars, I try something I would never do if I was a flesh and blood visitor to an unknown place: look for the X-rated entertainment. Plugging ‘xxx’ into the site’s search engine, I teleport to one of SL’s many sex clubs. Seeking out the curious spectacle of avatars having sex seemed to me the point of the exercise. What else was there to do? To the uninitiated, Second Life can be a rather lonely place. You can traipse about for ages and never meet another soul. Your avatar might be able to fly, traversing sparkly digital oceans, but this doesn’t help all that much.

A couple years later, I visit Second Life again, this time with a more ‘legitimate’ destination. I am going to RMB City, a project of the Beijing-based artist Cao Fei. Still my experience is much the same. Where is everybody? I am suffering from a disjunction between real the virtual, a dynamic Cao Fei had explicitly set out to explore. My experience helps to shed light on the problem, but it’s of the unintended sort. If my navigations through the world of Second Life are cumbersome and alienating, it’s because I have a sub par computer. It’s an issue of processing speed. Inadvertently perhaps, Cao Fei’s ambitions in Second Life provide a metaphor for the looming dilemma faced by the West. We are lagging behind but lack the drive needed to overcome this predicament.

Disjunctions between the real and virtual worlds, often unintended, also dominate the Residency in RMB City project. Because it is located in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills, the Gendai Gallery is somewhat hard to get to. With this exhibition Gendai curator, Yan Wu, puts the venue’s peripheral status to good conceptual use, proposing a show that can be, in part, accessed by computer. Working with the artists, Adrian Blackwell, Yam Lau and the collaborative duo of Judith Doyle and Fei Jun (known as GestureCloud), Wu creates an exhibition that combines a gallery presentation with digital artworks created for Cao Fei’s Second Life property.

Made up of an amalgamation of references to Chinese architecture, RMB City features the Herzog and de Meuron Bird’s Nest along with shiny skyscrapers, motorways and sidewalks, warrens of small shops selling take out food and the like, all of it organized around the central structure of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s Imperial Palace, which dates from the Ming Dynasty. Although Cao Fei promotes her project as a platform for artist collaboration, miscommunications meant that Wu found her initial proposal to create an artist residency in RMB City rejected by the artist. Further communications remedied the situation; as of press time, the artists are soon to begin moving their projects to the Second Life location. In recognition of the changed status of the project, this second phase will now be termed Intervention into RMB City. A publication about the project, called From Residency to Intervention will be published in the spring.

In the Gendai gallery, Blackwell presents Lóng Sùshè (Dormitory) (2011) a plywood maquette of a workers’ dormitory proposed for RMB City. Trained as an architect, Blackwell has lived in China, teaching architecture there at an offsite campus of U of T. With Lóng Sùshè he provides infrastructural context for Cao Fei’s metropolitan fantasy. An interest in sculpture as a platform for public discourse has been the long term focus of Blackwell’s practice. Referring to an actual dormitory in the industrial region of Shenzen, one that is continually being built in an effort to meet the growing demand for worker’s housing, Lóng Sùshè, helps to clarify certain questions that will emerge along with China’s growing economic dominance. What kind of public will China’s new global order create? How easily do traditions of the West translate, and are they even relevant? The notion of a public sphere is amongst the highest ideals of a functioning Democracy, but it’s not clear how it will figure in a country that has little in the way of democratic traditions as they are known in the West.

Writing about the legion of workers that power the engine of China’s economic expansion has become a journalistic trope in Western reports about the country. China’s nineteenth century industrial conditions are a subject of some fascination in the West. Such reportage helps provide a salve for the conscience of those enjoying the products of cheap Chinese labour. Judith Doyle and Fei Jun’s GestureCloud (2011) uses the space of Second Life to rewrite this narrative, to great critical effect. In place of the whole, but nameless, Chinese worker, the artists create a virtual inventory of the gestures factory employees are forced to repeat, ad infinitum, when doing their job. Based on video documentation of the duties performed in a printing factory in Beijing, GestureCloud represents these workers in terms of their real world effects. This distillation by the artists’ creates clarity: like everybody, really, in global economy, the factory workers are mere nodal points within a vast system — or to borrow a 19th century metaphor, cogs in the machine. As with other multi-user online environments, Second Life has a real world economy, money changing hands in the form of Linden Dollars (San Francisco’s Linden Labs is the company behind the site). For the RMB City stage of the project, these gestures will be available for purchase via a vending machine in Second Life, the animations being useful presumably for avatar-related Second Life labours. Gesture Cloud’s ultimate ambition is to return the money they make back to the factory workers in Beijing.

Residency in RMBCity installation at the Gendai Gallery
Residency in RMBCity installation: Yam Lau, Princess Iron fan (l), Adrian Blackwell, Long Sushe (r)

One translation of RMB City is Money Town; a mordant commentary on the breakneck pace of economic development in China, Cao Fei’s project also creates a narrative for the transition China is currently undergoing — and the implications it has for the rest of the world. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can use Second Life; the language of software is more or less universal. With Princess Iron Fan (2011), Yam Lau gives expression to the heterogeneity of elements from which this new Global culture is being constructed. Princess Iron Fan is character from a Chinese folk tale, adapted for a film of the same name, which was the first animated feature film made in China, in 1941. Lau adopts the figure of Iron Fan as it appeared in the 1941 animation for his Second Life avatar, but with important alterations. Presented in pleasingly anachronistic black and white, the avatar is given certain ghostly characteristics. It is visible from the front but not the sides or back; the artist slyly attributes vaporous qualities to a thing that already has no substance. In the gallery, the projected animation appears from time to time, mimicking the avatar’s movement through the virtual world; in Second Life, Princess Iron Fan is programmed to similarly ambulate around. However, she never appears in both places at once: Princess Iron Fan is perpetually destined to exist on the threshold between the virtual and the actual. In metaphorical terms, the virtual animation of a Chinese folk hero points to the changed cultural landscape that will characterize the 21st century – an expanded world no longer necessarily bound by Western ideas or traditions.

By Rosemary Heather

Residency in RMB City is a project of Gendai Gallery, Toronto.
This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings, Issue 118.