Sunday, September 30, 2007

Making art a team sport LATimes

ONE of the more intriguing art world invitations in recent memory landed in e-mail in-boxes around town in March. "Dear Friends," it read, "Friday night we will have three 2007 Escalades parked in front of Machine blasting whale songs. And other stuff. Saturday, we have a concert in the secret gallery that can be listened to on speaker phone. Both events are free. Details below. Love, Machine" Machine -- short for Machine Project -- is one of the L.A. art world's more quixotic institutions: an artist-run nonprofit in a raggedy Alvarado Street storefront in Echo Park that has become, in the four years since it opened, a haven for the hip, the nerdy and the otherwise curious. Conceived, in the words of its mission statement, "to encourage the heroic experiments of the gracefully overambitious," it plays host to exhibitions, performances, lectures and workshops on a broad and sometimes baffling range of topics revolving loosely around the intersection of art and technology. If you missed the cetacean-channeling SUVs (actually an installation by Peter Segerstrom), you might have caught "Psychobotany," an exhibition exploring "revolutionary breakthroughs in human/plant communication"; the Dorkbot Dorkbake, a bake-off in which contestants were required to construct their own ovens powered solely by the heat of a 100-watt light bulb; or the four-week Felt and Circuits Workshop, in which participants were instructed in the arts of both felt making and circuit board construction, with the goal of producing "your own noisy synthesizer creature from scratch." It's an exciting time for art in L.A., and nowhere is this more palpable -- nowhere are the reasons for it clearer -- than in a place like Machine, where the siren song of a fevered market holds little sway; anything goes, curatorially; and no one's getting paid enough to be haughty. Of all the city's cultural resources -- prestigious schools, ambitious museums, a robust gallery scene -- the most significant by far is its ever-welling population of artists, and it's from this pool that these organizations have arisen: institutions that function, to one degree or another, as art projects in themselves, driven by ideas and a spirit of collaboration, whose offbeat programming aims to challenge the boundaries of what we conceive art to be. The progenitors, most would agree, are the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation (opened in 1988 and 1994, respectively). In their wake have come Machine Project, Betalevel (formerly C-Level), Farmlab, Telic Arts Exchange, Dangerous Curve, the Velaslavasay Panorama and Monte Vista Projects. There are also nomadic organizations like Art2102, the Institute for Figuring and Outpost for Contemporary Art, as well as educational experiments like the Sundown Schoolhouse (formerly the Sundown Salon) and the Mountain School of Arts. They've opened for different reasons; they have different agendas, different vibes and different financial arrangements. Machine, for instance, has a technological bent; Farmlab's focus is environmental activism. Dangerous Curve has become a center for experimental music. Betalevel, located in a basement down an alley in Chinatown, has the furtive, secretive feel of a speak-easy; the Panorama, which occupies an old theater near USC, models itself on the entertainment culture of the 19th century. Some (Machine and Telic) are registered nonprofits, surviving on donations and grants; others (Betalevel, Dangerous Curve) are internally funded. Farmlab is wholly subsidized by the Annenberg Foundation. They are, however, very much in communication, often sharing board members, as well as contacts and audiences. As Lauren Bon from Farmlab puts it: "There's a whole mushroom spore of them. They're all connected under the surface, but they are also very independent."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Art Boom in China Has Ripples Over Here, NYTimes

WITH its tainted exports and crackdowns on the press, China has lately been exposing the dark side of the Asian boom. Yet the Chinese contemporary-art industry continues to thrive, as museums and art districts sprout overnight, and Western dealers join the gold rush by adding Chinese artists to their rosters and opening spaces in Beijing.

So far New Yorkers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Apart from a few major big-bang events, like “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” at the Asia Society and P.S. 1 in 1998 and a record-setting Sotheby’s auction in 2006, contemporary Chinese work has only had a spotty showing here. We don’t see a lot of it, and most of what we do see seems polished and clever but slight.

If the only way to gain any real sense of what’s happening is to visit China itself, the coming art season does offer some at-home options. Several artists from that Asia Society-P.S. 1 show are now international stars, and they are being rewarded with midcareer museum surveys.

One, Cai Guo-Qiang, best known in New York for the choreographed fireworks display he launched over Central Park in 2003, will have a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in early 2008. The Central Park work was sabotaged by bad weather, but Mr. Cai is the real deal as a creative force. Well aware of the nuances embedded in terms like Chinese and Western, he is, at his best, one of the most exciting figures around.

Another “Inside/Out” alumnus, Zhang Huan, opened the fall season at the Asia Society on Thursday with a solo show. Mr. Zhang was a member of Beijing’s art underground in the 1990s, living in the squatter slum there called the East Village. Initially his art took the form of endurance-test performances focused on his own nude body. More recently he has been making monumental sculptures and some beautiful drawings.

The work of two of China’s most ambitious young film and video artists, Cai Fei and Yang Fudong, will appear side by side in “Business as Usual” at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe, beginning Sept. 15. Both artists, though in very different ways, take their country’s new cultural revolution, the Bourgeois Sublime, as their theme.

Finally, China as seen by the West is the subject of two exhibitions. “Bridging East and West: The Chinese Diaspora and Lin Yutang,” opening Sept. 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will feature work by 20th-century artists who were born in China but spent much of their career in the United States. And “Eastern Standard: Western Artists in China,” opening in January at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., will present a view of modernizing China from the viewpoint of Western artists. That perspective can’t help but be complex, with many lights and shadows.