5 Non-Western Artists Who Made a Splash at Art Basel Miami Beach
Shifting away from exhausted Eurocentric tropes, artists from Africa and Asia were responsible for some of Art Basel’s best works.
Jungle of Desire installation view, Wong Ping. Images courtesy of artists and their gallery booths
Although the 2016 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach (unfortunately) did not have a section highlighting non-Western art in a similar vein to the Armory's lauded African Perspectives sector this year, the Miami mega-fair brought together a scattered, but truly superb selection of art not made by artists hailing from Western Europe or the Americas. Here's our take on the best of the non-West at Art Basel Miami Beach 2016:
Aaajiao at Leo Xu Projects
Xu Wenkai, the Shanghai-based artist known by the alias Aaajiao, had work on display at the Leo Xu Projects booth. An artist enthralled by the boundless realms of the Internet and the structures that govern and control it, his works at the fair were nearly-infinite durational pieces dealing with precisely with these themes.
Gfwlist (2010-2013) is a tall and slender black sculpture intentionally reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's big black block from 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the structure in the movie relates to the advancing and evolution of the human species, Aaajiao's monolith possesses a small, embedded receipt printer which endlessly prints out what appears to be strings of gibberish. The nonsensical characters are in fact encrypted translations of websites with restricted access to Chinese citizens, blocked by the government's notorious censorship. In a similar vein to how the viewer is incapable of having a concrete understanding of which site each encrypted section refers to, most Chinese citizens only have vague ideas of what these blocked websites are like.
Aaajiao also showed Email Trek (2016), a newer piece involving an algorithm the artist developed that continuously generates an infinite number of email addresses while sending an altered version of the "Where No Man Has Gone Before" Star Trek speech to each address. On view is an iPad displaying the new email addresses generated in real time, next to which is an enormous static panel displaying thousands of email addresses which were contacted beforehand. The emails in bold represent the addresses which successfully received the message, while the light and nearly transparent ones represent invalid or inactive emails which bounced back the initial emails.
Ibrahim El-Salahi at Vigo
Although Vigo is a London-based gallery founded by British gallerist Toby Clarke, their booth at Art Basel Miami Beach was centered entirely around Ibrahim El-Salahi, an 86-year-old Sudanese painter with arguably the most interesting backstory of any artist in the fair (beyond having fantastic works, of course).
Beyond serving as the Director General of Culture of Sudan between 1972 and 1973, working as a surrealist actor in the early days of Sudanese film, and having been invited by the mayor of Qatar to translate the country's history from Arabic to English (and being one of the most important African artist of the 20th century as Clarke tells me), El-Salahi was at one point, seemingly psychogenic powers. According to the gallerist, the artist would sporadically see three tall and peaceful, ghoul-like figures in his surroundings, frequently portraying these odd beings in his early works.
After being beaten and thrown into prison for 'attempting to overthrow the government' (but ultimately having no formal charge pinned against him), the artist suddenly stopped seeing visions of these figures and the direction of his work shifted. Prohibited to create art while incarcerated, El Salahi managed to use a 4-inch pencil hidden from the guards and improvised materials around him to continue to make work, albeit in a stylistically different vein than before. After his release, El-Salahi continued to work in his 'prison style' for the remainder of his career, a facet highlighted by Vigo's Art Basel booth, which featured a series of never-before-seen works made in this vein, created by the artist between 1976 and 1977.
Liu Shiyuan at Leo Xu Projects
Returning to the Leo Xu Projects booth, a gallery which clearly brought the heat to Art Basel, Love Poem by Liu Shiyuan brings the essence of Bill Murray's Lost in Translation into the art world, through an exploration of the complications inherent to intercultural communication. Taking love poems from different cultures and ceaselessly translating them over and over again into different language until most meaning is lost in the cracks, the artist displayed the resulting unpoetic-poetic lines on five iPads, which display scrolling lines of the newly formed semi-gibberish in 12 different languages. The forced translations, along with the overwhelming amount of text scrolling in alternate directions on the screen was capable of overwhelming even the biggest polyglots at the art fair.
Taro Izumi at Take Ninagawa
Taro Izumi's two video installations at Take Ninagawa were in the running for the most technically complex works at the fair. In both Fish Bone as Slang (In Search of a Cat), and The Allure of the Whale that Winks with its Fin, Izumi enacts a similar process: First, the artist films himself doing a parkour-like acrobatic route around an urban Japanese setting, climbing and jumping on anything in his vicinity.
Screening this footage on small monitors, the artist places a series of household items, from bottles and glasses to hammers and rulers, directly in front of the monitors in such a way that they imitate the forms of the urban structures on the screen.
The combinations of screens and objects are then filmed in real time and projected immediately onto the walls, becoming live reinterpretations of the prior footage taken by the artist. In these new iterations, Izumi runs up the edge of a ruler to the top of a building and jumps from the cap of a Gatorade bottle to the top of a glass vase, all done in an inhumanly perfect synchrony indicative of an unfathomable amount of pre-planning.
Wong Ping at Edouard Malingue Gallery
Although I visited the Edouard Malingue Gallery booth three times throughout the day, never once was the it occupied by less than 10 visitors. Jungle of Desire, Wong Ping's sole installation was beyond poignant, from the dozens of Lucky Cats ceaselessly waving their paws hypnotically on top of a pink fur carpet to the animated masterpiece in the middle of the space.
The vividly animated video comes from the point of view of an impotent husband who is incapable of sexually pleasing his wife for obvious reasons. Rather than ending the relationship, his wife behaves in line with her philosophy that "Love and sex are separate things," but soon turns to prostitution once her legion of sex toys prove to be insufficient tools for adequate satisfaction.
Surprisingly, the husband doesn't seem to mind the awkward nature of the situation until a police officer who is capable of "completely satisfying his wife" like no other begins to make repeated visits for free under the threat that he will otherwise arrest her for her illegal activities.
The impotent narrator begins to fantasize of his deep desire to become invisible but also sexually potent, not out of a yearning to satisfy his wife but to be able to harass and viciously rape the antagonistic police officer perpetually and without him knowing what is happening to him. The narrator delves into great detail as to how this will drive the police officer into profound madness until committing suicide through the igniting of his own desperate farts. A raw and raunchy exploration of sexual frustration and the drive for power and dominion, Ping's video is as visually biting as it is conceptually brilliant, encouraging repeated viewings.