Conceptualizing old ideas into ‘new’ art

by Matthew Larking

A persisting fear with conceptual art is that you are being made a fool of. Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s 2008 video works are ostensibly about cultural preconceptions and the difficulties of interpretation, but her participants are often left looking ignorant and unsophisticated. For the videos, she placed reproductions of 19th-century Western masterpieces in forests and fields and had Thai villagers discuss the paintings.

When faced with Edouard Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” (1862), they chime in one after another, “Are you pointing at her tits?,” “Her face is fresh, fresh like fresh chicken droppings” and “If we walk inside the painting it could be so cool.” It is a little amusing and a bit pathetic.

“Kaza Ana / Air Hole: Another Form of Conceptualism from Asia,” featuring nine Asian-born individual artists or groups, is a conceptual confusion. In the catalog, which engages in hyperbole to trump up what is occasionally minor stuff, the first half of the title is explained to convey a “new wind” that will “dismantle frameworks” and offer “infinite possibilities” of art. But much of the work is simply a rehash of old ideas.

Take Shimabuku’s work. For “Kaki (Persimmon) and Tomato” (2008), he juxtaposes the two fruits in a photograph. They look a little similar, they have their differences. The catalog states that the work “inspire(s) people to recognize their fundamental differences and bring those who can’t understand each other a little closer together.” This is a stretch that needs explanation. Other projects of his include taking an octopus for a sightseeing tour of Tokyo, a pointless activity that mostly smacks of Joseph Beuys’ 1965 performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare,” for which he described the contents of a gallery to a dead hare.

Other pieces deeply indebted to the past includes Qiu Zhijie’s “Standard” (1996 / 2011) — an elastic tape measure of which 10 cm or so can be stretched rather longer. The idea comes from Marcel Duchamp’s “Three Standard Stoppages” (1913-14), with which he cast doubt upon the uniform length of a meter. Duchamp called his work a joke, but Zhijie’s work appears reverent. He also achieves interesting results in other ways, such as his works that relate to the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge, a symbol both of China’s triumphant modernization and a place where the despairing go to end their lives.

Yang Haegue’s “Traces of Anonymous Pupil Authors” (2001) erases the printed content in old textbooks, retaining the underlines and other such scribbles made by students. “This minimalist gesture transforms the fleeting acts of anonymous students into drawings by anonymous artists,” proclaims the catalog, but really it is an attenuated pastiche of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953).

The exhibition does redeem itself in particular instances. Entering the caged installation of contact Gonzo feels almost threatening. Sitting with her back to you is a museum docent, dressed in a hoodie — shrouded and suspicious. The whole site is filled with refuse, among which video monitors depict young men skateboarding, crashing and faux-fighting or otherwise.

The art group’s improvised violent contact has a mandate: “philosophy of pain and technique of touch.” It is raw stuff, often amusing when the performances falteringly begin and a little unsettling — if not all that conceptual.

Dinh Q. Le’s forte is bringing the street into the gallery. His “Halos in the Night” (2010), an installation of symbols indicating a bicycle repair service in Vietnam, evokes the minimal neon light sculptures of American Dan Flavin in the gallery context. It is based on the same visual similarity / difference one finds with Shimabuku, though arguably it is the cultural differences that buoy the work, if not much else.

Other works of Dinh maintain the incessant recourse to well-worn conceptual precedents, such as “Fountains for BN” (2010). Here, three plastic buckets are rigged with a bit of plumbing to create fountains. The “BN” of the title refers to a self-portrait of Bruce Nauman spitting water, and that ultimately traces back to Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the exhibit of a urinal that was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists in New York in 1917.

The conceptual repetitions here suggest a small, enclosed world with all its formative references as entrenched as ever and its possibilities vaguely circumscribed. Rather than “another form of conceptualism,” this is mostly the contemporary recycling of the recent Western past.

“Kaza Ana / Air Hole: Another Form of Conceptualism from Asia” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs till June 5; admission ¥850; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.nmao.go.jp