As collectors and press flooded onto Pier 94 on Wednesday for the 2014 edition of New York’s Armory Show art fair, there was a general ambivalence in the air, a feeling of here-we-go-again lassitude. Also in the air—literally—were generic sculptures being tossed by unseen workers inside an enclosed booth, artist Xu Zhen’s installation Action of Consciousness, the centerpiece of the Focus: China section and, it turns out, a fitting work for an uncharacteristically comic Armory Show. Throughout the aisles, amid the large abstract canvases and shiny sculptures, a wealth of big-laugh works provided a welcome antidote to fairtigue.
Another piece by Xu, in the booth of Huangzhou’s Tianrenheyi Art Center (booth 532), also comments on our habitual consumption of art through digital representations. His painting Light Source, depicting a variation on a classical reclining nude hung in a gilded frame, features a bright patch of white at its center, the recreated glare of a camera flash—while also serving a censorial purpose, blotting out the nude figure’s body. On the other side of the Focus section, Beijing-based collective Double Fly Art Center has taken over Space Station gallery’s booth (560) with an interactive game show of sorts. A sign greeting visitors explains in a jarringly translated text: “Games Playground of Double Fly Art Center! Come on! ONLY 50 Dollars/ per chance! 99% to collect surprise! No Play No Life! No Money No Art!” The prizes to be won include assorted random items in clear plastic bags, from panties to a paintbrush to a container for McDonald’s French fries.
A slightly darker stripe of humor is on view a few booths over, at Gallery Exit’s Focus section booth (546), which Nadim Abbas has transformed into a minefield strewn with spiky cement balls the size of large grapefruits. At the center of the booth, a self-guided Rumba vacuum tries to navigate between the obstacles, unsuccessfully; it is trapped in an inescapable maze. The entire installation, titled Zone (1) (2014) and equipped with a backup Rumba, is available for around US$45,000.
Leaving the Focus section, a number of artists use representations of supposedly cute animals to create moments of dark comedy. In the booth of Oslo’s Galleri Brandstrup (516), practically hidden in a corner, Fredrik Raddum’s bronze sculpture of a teddy bear seated atop and crushing a miniature human figure evokes a childhood nightmare. Around the corner, in Belgium-based Galerie Rodolphe Janssen’s booth (507), the 2013 painting Golden Section by Sean Landers finds him trading in his trademark clowns for an inquisitive squirrel whose fur is neither brown nor red, but rather an elegant green-and-maroon plaid.
Dublin-based Mother’s Tankstation has given over its entire booth to Atsushi Kaga, who has filled it with a salon-style hanging of 181 paintings and prints, ranging in price from US$850 to US$9,600. The cartoon-influenced images star a white rabbit as Kaga’s autobiographical stand-in, who interacts with a host of other animals, including bears, cats, rabbits, flamingoes, and more. The figures’ cuteness is undercut by the somber tenor of the dialogue exchanged in their word bubbles.
In one piece, a contemplative cat with an eye patch asks nobody in particular between puffs of a cigarette and swigs from a shot glass of milk, in one of Kaga’s paintings: “How long have I got till I die? Shit! I’m a fucking cat! Cats don’t live that long! do they?”
Meanwhile at Pierogi Gallery’s booth (752), master of extremely realistic and fully functional installations Andrew Ohanesian has installed a wall piece mimicking the money slots of vending machines. Matter-of-factly instructing viewers to “Insert Bill Here,” the piece, Dollar Bill Acceptor (2014), simply takes money and gives nothing in return. For the collector who simply can’t accept that bargain, the piece is still available for $6,000.
If being conned out of your money doesn’t strike you as funny, there’s always lewd humor, such as that on display in Blain|Southern’s booth (504). There you’ll find Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s plaster sculpture The Wedding Cake (2008), whose smooth exterior resembles a man’s face in profile, but whose interior contains a phalanx of phalluses. As one collector remarked on Wednesday after looking over the piece, “I’ve never seen so many penises at one time!”
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