By ALICE WANG
Blinded by slanting sleet and ankle-deep in murky sidewalk sludge, I was determined to gallery-hop in Chelsea this February break. So, dressed in my best impression of an art connoisseur — somewhere between homeless chic and Mugatu’s Derelicte — I dragged my art-ambivalent friend along to our crash course in culture (just in time — as we may or may not have confused the Comme des Garcons flagship store as some swank spaceship-shaped gallery). Of the many trendy staples on the Chelsea gallery scene, both boutique and Blue Chip, the only mutually anticipated stop of the day for the both of us was Li Hongbo’s “Tools of Study” exhibition at Klein Sun Gallery.
As the artist’s first States-side solo show, “Tools of Study” is a sleeper success, gaining hype-beast level momentum with Li’s heavily Tumbl-d, GIF-tastic works. The show is comprised of unconventional figurative sculptures, which upon first glance appear to be traditional Classical masterworks rendered in marble. With the help of the white-gloved staffers, a bust of David elongates and contorts, expands and contracts, like a slinky on steroids. It is strange and unsettling, in a good way, seducing the unsuspecting viewer with its playful mobility.
Drawing inspiration from traditional Chinese decorations, Li Hongbo imitates the honeycomb pattern of paper gourds hung during holidays. Each one of his works is composed of thousands of intricately glued sheets of paper, weighing 30 pounds or more in its entirety, sculpted with band saws and polished with files to create the fine features of these (often) famous faces. Intentionally rendering archetypal figures, artist Li aims to direct the audience’s attention to the wonders of the flexible material, not on each figure’s identity. As he elaborates, “People have a fixed understanding of what a human is … So when you transform a person, people will reconsider the nature of objects and the motivation behind the creation. This is what I care about.”
To me, it was an elegant critique of East meets West, utilizing the visage of great Western democracy in a medium invented and mastered by products of a Communist country. The dichotomy between the traditionally stiff portraiture format and the paper’s lively mutability generates a rare visual interest, forcefully uniting the maelstrom of Li’s theoretically and geographically polar influences.
To my friend, it was like watching one of those spiraling paper memo pads unravel after ingesting a couple tabs of acid. It was trippy, like shaking a slinky on some stank smack, but truthfully the whole experience was made infinitely more riveting by the work’s easy transition into an Instagram video.
Either interpretation of the work is correct. When probing my friend, she admitted the work was enjoyable — but “gimmicky.” She used the word like it was kryptonite to high art. It got me thinking, so what? What about gimmick cheapens art? Is it its popularity on various platforms of social media? Is the number of Tumblr notes indirectly proportional to the work’s inherent social value? I question what’s wrong with social media when it reaches stubborn youths for cultural and educative gains that they would’ve otherwise never experienced. I wonder why my friend thinks that for a work of art to be significant, for it to be brow-furrowing, chin-in-hand “serious,” it has to mystify. Many people out there — myself included at times — are under the false impression that good art aims to confound the viewer. “Complex” work baffles, eludes definition, avoids transparency, is made loftier by its impenetrable, shape-shifting meaning, right? I mean, if I get it, then it can’t be that good, huh? Wrong.
Honestly, I think this mentality is bull. This is exactly the type of snobbish attitude that is projected unto the art scene, alienating the greater, would-be art-loving public. “Good” art and approachable art do not have to be mutually exclusive, and not all art aims to have some aloof, grandiose quality. More and more, this unshakeable label of “gimmick art” or “kitsch art” is applied to interactive and sensory art. Recalling Yayoi Kusama’s crowd-drawing “Infinity Room” this winter, I heard many a complaint about the gaggles of corporate hipsters queuing up to six hours for a 40-second spin in the mirrored room. Presumably, all 40 seconds was preoccupied with capturing the perfect Instagram selfie. Adding insult to injury, while waiting in the line for entrance, most visitors waltzed right by the rest of Kusama’s exhibit without even a cursory glance. Yes, this is a dually amusing and depressing situation, and it not unlike the Hype Beast Colossus that was “Rain Room” mania this summer.
And yet interactive art like Li Hongbo’s paper sculptures is simply addicting, containing the perfect amount of spectacle to qualify sharing on social media. That’s okay. It’s not high art and it’s not not high art just because it’s popular. We can’t reject high art on the basis that it appeals to too many people. Popularity is not a proper yardstick, and not everyone considers an obtuse operation as the most provoking exhibit. If you think I’m an ignoramus for liking something popular, I think you’re an ignoramus for uniformly dismissing all popular art as “gimmicky” or “commercialized.” Don’t you know? Nowadays, art is commerce. Yayoi Kusama must know that her uniquely unwell history of mental illness has made her and her story more marketable than ever. The “Rain Room” garnered MoMA enough foot traffic to get the would-be museum-avoiding public to occasionally visit its other exhibitions, too — never not a good thing. And Li Hongbo has already sold 31 of the 35 works on view at Klein Sun, with prices from $10,000 to $48,000, garnering him enough press and profit to continue producing more work. Besides, I’m sure your Instagram of James Turrell at the Guggenheim this summer got more likes “than a white girl talking.” It’s a win-win-win-win … so why are you complaining again?