11.09.2008

Images of the State at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair

I had some surreal and unsettling moments while attending the Thursday night opening of the Asian Contemporary Art Fair at Pier 52. An artist friend was looking forward to seeing how her work was presented at the fair, and so we arrived fairly early in the evening to get an overview of the exhibition booths. Walking into the vast space of over 90 exhibitors from Asia, the near East, and Middle East, we were immediately greeted by symbols of the state in the form of several soldiers in green uniforms resembling those of the North Korean army. As we made our way past the contemporary art displayed in the booths, the soldiers kept reforming in several positions around the exhibition space. At several times, they convened in a checkpoint in the main gallery, lining up around models standing on platforms. If this wasn't enough to make me reach for another glass of wine, there was also the overload of Pop Mao on exhibit throughout the galleries as well as the many Asian variations on Koons, Richter, and Kiefer. Yet, the presence of non-derivative work of high quality made me wish I knew more about the contemporary art scene in Asia.

The soldiers, it turned out, were part of Beijing-based artist Yibin Tian's All for One and One for All installation, a complex presentation that played upon the psychology of oppression as well as on the visual culture of the totalitarian state. Taking its title from the famous slogan from Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers, the presentation of the soldiers seemed especially appropriate for this pro-capitalist setting, one designed to sell individual works of art.

I had a funny walk home. While my artist friend stayed behind, I wandered into the night and headed south, not knowing exactly how to get back to my apartment in the Village. Walking along the river I bumped into a large contingent of New York policemen. They were directing traffic to Pier 86. I looked over and looming right in front of me, under theatrical spotlights, was the gigantic bow of the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier that served an important role in the Pacific Theater in World War II and which has now been restored and, as of this weekend, opened back up for public tours. I asked a group of police officers about the big brass that were arriving for a pre-opening party, and one of them told me that the guests included several dignitaries, including the former police commissioner and "Bill Clinton and his wife." It was the funny way the officer said this phrase, and he was trying to be humorous, that made me think a lot about the nature of internal police forces and external armies and the role of the individual law enforcer and the state. I finally hailed a taxi and had the driver take me to a subway stop, and from the great melting pot of the W. 4th station, I made my way home.

Images: from Yibin Tian's All for One and One for All installation, Asian Contemporary Art Fair. The fair continues through Sunday, November 9, 2008. Official site.

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