Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Celeste Fichter

A close-up shot of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s face, Prince Charles atop his horse playing polo, and Dom DeLuise in drag pouring wine: What do these three things have in common? Nothing really, except that images of them, as well as many other well-known people, places, products, and tropes, appear in the uniquely humorous and witty compositions of artist Celeste Fichter.

Celeste Fichter. Spanglish Series: Dom DeLuise (where’s Louise?), 2011; inkjet print; 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Celeste Fichter. Spanglish Series: Dom DeLuise (Where’s Louise?), 2011; inkjet print; 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In her three serial projects Sign Language (2010–present), Spanglish (2011), and Significant Others (2009–2010), Fichter incorporates a wide range of materials and subjects to “investigate the relationship between verbal and visual language, and explore the distance between meaning and representation.” While each series has a different focus, Fichter’s methods and approach are similar, as she incorporates drawing, collage, photography, video, sculpture, and installation into all three.

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New York

Amanda Turner Pohan: The Signals Are Caressing Us at A.I.R. Gallery

In the back room of A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, a scent dispenser exhales once an hour. A meandering plastic tube connects the dispenser to a six-and-a-half-gallon jug on the floor near the center of the room. The jug contains the concentrated form of a custom-formulated perfume derived from sensors that measured the carbon dioxide exhaled by the artist Amanda Turner Pohan during thirteen unique orgasms. Presenting a nearly empty room, Pohan’s exhibition The Signals Are Caressing Us is saturated with the unexpected. Laced with intimacy, the space enveloped me with its concentrations and abstractions of human desire.

2.Amanda Turner Pohan. The Signals Are Caressing Us, 2015; installation view, A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn. Courtesy of A.I.R. Gallery.

Amanda Turner Pohan. The Signals Are Caressing Us, 2015; installation view, A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn. Courtesy of A.I.R. Gallery.

The room smelled only faintly fragrant when I entered, so I guided my nose as far into the jug of eau d’orgasme as possible without my lips touching the bottle’s mouth—an act that felt as indecent as it did satisfying. Each inhalation offered a different bouquet: citrusy, then acerbic, then sweetly floral. With the work Orgasmic Exhalation Device for Body Spray #11 (2014), Pohan captures her private expressions of sexual pleasure, condenses them, and reintroduces them into a public space, taking aim at the age-old repression of women’s sexuality. Though more people speak out against this condition today, women are still expected to possess sexual desire only to please men and to preen themselves for this purpose (for example, with odorless or perfumed, hairless bodies). Pohan asserts ownership of her body and its interactions with others, a kind of ownership that few women enjoy.

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Los Angeles

Pierre Huyghe at LACMA

There is a scene in Pierre Huyghe’s shadowy, dreamlike film The Host and the Cloud (2010) in which a woman produces a black rabbit from an unmarked box. No magician, she handles the unexpected animal with a mixture of bewilderment and acute apprehension. Later in the film, she confronts the event during hypnotherapy; then, in a key conversion, she watches her own analysis session performed by shadow puppets in a theater. This sublimation of trauma into spectacle is no doubt the real magic trick—one lurking around every corner in the artist’s impressive retrospective of sleek films, technologically sophisticated objects, and living creatures, currently installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Unbridled by chronology and injected with several unpredictable elements, the exhibition, like Huyghe’s more recent work, is an ambitious update to surrealism, and it is spellbinding. There is, however, a question that critical viewers will be bound to raise: whether Huyghe’s work is perhaps too at home in the 21st century to achieve the uncanny—the lynchpin of surrealism as we have traditionally understood it.

Pierre Huyghe. Zoodram 5 (after ‘Sleeping Muse’ by Constantin Brancusi), 2011. Glass tank, filtration system, resin mask, hermit crab, arrow crabs and basalt rock. © Pierre Huyghe, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris

Pierre Huyghe. Zoodram 5 (After ‘Sleeping Muse’ by Constantin Brancusi), 2011; glass tank, filtration system, resin mask, hermit crab, arrow crabs, and basalt rock. © Pierre Huyghe. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Three films form the backbone of the exhibition: The Host and the Cloud, mentioned above, captures a group of people’s unscripted responses to “live situations” that unfold in an abandoned ethnographic museum; A Way in Untilled (2012) zooms in to the levels of animal, insect, and bacterial life at a former compost of a city park, modified by Huyghe for Documenta 13; and A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) weaves together footage from a trip to Antarctica and an “orchestral event”/laser show produced by the artist in New York’s Central Park. As art films, each takes the license to eschew conventional narrative and redirect focus on the sensuousness of sounds, images, and ideas. The Host and the Cloud, however, also veers effortlessly into the cinematic. Despite the supposedly unstaged nature of the film’s content, Huyghe’s smart use of editing, lighting, and score sustains gripping drama over a two-hour duration. Indeed, long stretches of the film could be compared to the more adventurous work of director David Lynch. Notably, Huyghe, like the Hollywood director, seems to select only actors who are extraordinarily beautiful.

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From Beijing: Beijing Voice and Zhang Xiaotao at Pékin Fine Arts

There has been noise of late about the supposedly derivative nature of contemporary art, about questionable curatorial practices, and about the piratical behavior of the art market. “Zombie Formalism” and “Crapstraction” are glib, voguish—although, it must be said, amusing—terms that have been thrown around. Whatever you may think about this critique of current tendencies in abstract painting, it seems that all is not well in the world of contemporary practice. There is a growing sense that contemporary art has entered a swirling vortex of derivative quotations from the past—a Mannerist phase, perhaps. But is any of this relevant to contemporary art practices in China? After a disappointing exhibition across three major Beijing galleries, Zhang Xiaotao’s solo show at Pékin Fine Arts makes me believe that art still matters.

Zhang Xiaotao, Sakya, Still Image, 80 x 144 cm, 2010 - 2011, image courtesy Pekin Fine Arts

Zhang Xiaotao. Sakya, 2010-2011; still image; 80 x 144 cm. Courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts Beijing.

For the last few years, in regular visits to Beijing, I have been delighted to encounter work that seems to have escaped the dead hand of suffocating theory. Certainly Beijing has seen its share of the “art as spectacle” phenomenon, with artists tempted by the accessibility of large spaces, cheap labor, and cheaper fabrication costs to make works that are bigger and shinier than they need to be. But that’s the world we are living in now—a world of giant rubber ducks everywhere and butt-plug sculptures in the center of Paris. Art as entertainment. An evaluation of 2014 exhibitions in a Sydney newspaper pointed out that these days “you can’t just put stuff on the wall and expect that lots of people will come see.”[1] People expect something momentous, something extraordinary; they want their perceptions altered. In short, they want art to be magic.

And, sometimes, just sometimes, it is. My most enduring memories of the all-too-rare transcendent art experience include Cai Guo-Qiang in Brisbane, Xu Bing’s magnificent Phoenix in New York, and Huang Yong Ping at Beijing’s Red Brick Art Museum. Which is not to say that I haven’t also seen some wonderful painting, most particularly in Beijing and Shanghai. No “Zombie Formalism” there. To my list of the extraordinary I can now add Zhang Xiaotao’s digital 3D animations at Pékin Fine Arts, in his solo exhibition In the Realm of Microcosmic. Two works, Sakya (2010–2011) and The Adventures of Liang Liang (2012–2013), were exhibited in the 55th Venice Biennale, in the China National Pavilion’s Transfiguration curated by Wang Chunchen.

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From the Archives

From the Archive – Help Desk: Race & Voice

In celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, today we bring you a Help Desk column that answers a question about race and voice. And as part of our ongoing commitment to sharing information and resources, we’d like to point readers to this page, which links to free PDF books on race, gender, sexuality, class, and culture. One of the best ways to honor Dr. King and the many people around the world who continue to fight for justice and equality is to educate yourself.

Kerry James Marshall. Untitled, 2009; Acrylic on PVC, 61 1/8 x 72 7/8 x 3 7/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Kerry James Marshall. Untitled, 2009; acrylic on PVC; 61 1/8 x 72 7/8 x 3 7/8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

I am a writer and curator. I’m also a woman of color. While people think this may not be important, it is! We don’t live in a postracial society. What I find particularly infuriating is when I bring up race, gender, and identity—and then I’m questioned about my stance and my research; sometimes my words are edited to the point where it is no longer my writing. In a few instances, MY VOICE is almost eradicated. I’m upset, and the more I write about art, the more I realize how art institutions (universities, galleries, museums, and publications) have a LONG way to go before they actually showcase writers, art critics, curators, and creative professionals that are underrepresented and obscured. Yes, I understand there are shows dedicated to women and people of color to show diversity, etc., but I don’t care, I’m still going to bring up the question. How do I tell an editor that I’m entitled to my opinion—even if it brings up issues of race, gender, and identity—without being pegged as the “angry brown woman”?

In answering this question—which is really a few questions in one—I could write volumes about gender, editorial relations, and the misguided belief that tokenism can correct the problem of institutionalized race-based bias. However, this is a humble advice column and not the Help Desk Unabridged Encyclopedia of Advice, so in the interest of brevity I’ve asked some women who have experience with these matters, and I’ve sprinkled this reply liberally with links to further reading for people of all colors. In the interest of getting straight to the point, let me say: First, you need a mentor. You have to have someone you can rely on for guidance, preferably a woman of color who is in your field. A mentor can help you review various issues around writing and editing, critique your performance, help you define your goals, and bolster your professional community. Here are some tips for finding this person.

Next, I want you to focus on building conflict-resolution skills. This will be helpful for you and everyone else reading this column—no doubt every one of us will encounter myriad clashes in the workplace and beyond, and these skills take a while to master. Remember that conflict resolution is not just about mediating disagreements, it’s also about managing stressful situations. Start practicing now, before the world makes you crazy and bitter.

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Shotgun Reviews

Pierre Huyghe at LACMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Scott Norton reviews Pierre Huyghe’s solo exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pierre Huyghe. This is not a Time for Dreaming, 2004 (film still); transferred from 16mm film, 24:00; Courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. Photo by Michael Vahrenwald.

Pierre Huyghe. This Is Not a Time for Dreaming, 2004 (film still); 16mm film; 24:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. Photo by Michael Vahrenwald.

Entering the retrospective exhibition Pierre Huyghe at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is like entering a world where the lines of reality blur with that of constructed mythology. The contents of the exhibition—which includes more than two decades of work by the Paris-born Huyghe—seem to be more artifact than art. Arranged freely throughout the somber-lit, maze-like environment of the gallery, Huyghe’s multimedia happenings seem to contain elements of modern-day myth making, and place the viewer in a space where created fictions dictate a new world fashioned by the artist.

A Journey That Wasn’t (2005) is a tale of a voyage to the frozen Antarctic in search for a mythic albino penguin juxtaposed with a musical retelling of the event set in Central Park. Each “terrain”—one real and one imagined—begins to mirror the other, and gives way to a crescendo where each world bleeds into the other. Meanwhile, a cacophony of indistinct, almost organic sounds emanates from an equally murky symphonic score. Akin to a classic epic cycle, a hero’s quest is echoed by a psychological transformation. At journey’s end, the protagonist is forever haunted by the visions encountered while away, like Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey or Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

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From the Archives

From the Archives – Interview with Johan Grimonprez

Opening today at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, It’s a Poor Sort of Memory That Only Works Backwards is a solo exhibition of four films by Johan Grimonprez. To accompany the beginning of this exhibition, today we bring you an interview with the artist from 2011, when he memorably said, “… every kiss is a political act.” This article was originally published on March 23, 2011.

Johan Grimonprez. Double Take, 2009; installation view at Sean Kelley Gallery, 2009.

Johan Grimonprez’s film Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is listed in the IMDB under “documentary,” which is like calling a triple-shot hazelnut soy latte a cup of coffee. Yes, there is archived footage of actual plane hijackings, but there is also a deer on a bed, buildings collapsing, and a voiceover that explains, “All plots tend to move deathward.” His film Double Take (inspired by a Borges short story) is about echoes and mirroring, originals and copies: Alfred Hitchcock and his body doubles, the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War. Neither film “makes sense” in a linear, straightforward way, but they evoke another kind of comprehension: an understanding more emotional and intuitive than coldly logical. I talked with Grimonprez recently about these projects.

Bean Gilsdorf: Let’s start with an easy question: What is history?

Johan Grimonprez: The first thing I would answer with is history in the plural, histories. Very often power gets condensed in how history is being written. Walter Benjamin said, “History is written by the victors,” yeah? It’s how a nation legitimizes itself, a way of holding people together. Political structures condense themselves, and power is a big part of that. So like in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y when Leila Khaled hijacks a plane, she sort of rewrites herself back into history, into the history of Israel and what’s been told about the Palestinians. And since she doesn’t have a country, she renames the plane “Independent State of Palestine,” and this is, in a sense, rewriting history. So history is not a history, but it’s many histories. Of course, we all have our own histories, and it’s where histories intersect that we get into politics.

BG: How did you decide on the subjects and themes that are in Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and in Double Take, as histories that you wanted to share?

JG: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y started as research in how we say goodbye. If you take a plane there’s this whole architecture of paranoia…we’re all reduced to terrorists and criminals. For me the research was in how saying goodbye has been affected by the culture of fear, to analyze where that comes from, how our most intimate things are contextualized by fear. And in the ’60s you had interviews with individuals like Leila Khaled or Rima Tannous Eissa, but by the mid-’70s they have totally disappeared from the screen. For Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y  I went back in time, because I had a feeling that the individual was there. I wanted to go back to see the information that was there about the individual, and look at other histories.

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