Thursday, April 29, 2010

Package From China

Package From China
New work by Ben Sloat
126 Artist–Run Gallery, Galway

18th March – 3rd April, 2010
Review by Jim Ricks

“To have read Das Kapital in the 1970s wasn’t a complete waste of time because it has helped me understand China in the 1990’s.”

– Jan Wong
Red China Blues, 1996

To Get Rich Is... (around the corner and on the opposite wall) Glorious”. Each letter rises above eye level and works as a separate sculptural piece. They are comprised of hundreds of cheap everyday materials... all plastic and garish.

The subject of this exhibition is former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Deng Xioping. Along with his factional power struggles, Deng is also well known for adopting the ‘socialist market economy’, ushering in the massive transformation of China into what we know today. This bizarre and oxymoronic term can only be described as literal ‘double speak’.

China’s ruling party felt threatened as the Soviet Bloc broke up and the USSR dissolved into chaos and then gangster capitalism. The Machiavellian solution: stay in power, even if it means rewriting your own rules. And that is what Deng did. Slowly in the 1980s and without hesitation in the 1990s, China’s state monopoly was disintegrated, the ‘iron rice bowl’ (workers’ entitlements) smashed, as private ownership and foreign investments were introduced. China developed a stock market and entered the WTO. A clear class divide is now apparent; the CCP works on behalf of the owners, even as it maintains official Maoist rhetoric. Arguably, the rich coastal Special Economic Zones of free trade that Deng set up act as a distinct imperial power ruling over the poor rural mainland. It is also arguable that China has become a global sweatshop, enforced by the ‘strong hand’ of the CCP, which violently cracks down on dissenting students and organising workers and shuts down arteries of protest on the Internet, all in the interest of the new capitalist cadre. “What is clear is that without this turn to the market, originally envisaged as a detour, the rule of the [CCP] bureaucracy was seriously threatened”(1); thus Deng becomes a secret saviour for today’s new Chinese ruling class.

This is where Sloat finds his entry point for his first European exhibition. He began his research in Taiwan on residency and continued, across from his studio in Boston, at a 99¢ shop filled with cheap, colourful and tacky goods, all ‘Made in China’ for eager US consumers. He picked, categorised and assembled these imports into the adage, “To Get Rich Is Glorious”; the quote is Deng’s and dates from a famous visit in the early 1990s to China’s southern coastal regions. Each letter is made primarily of a single material: false flowers, rubber gloves, plastic toy firemen, wrapping paper, fake fur, play money, tissues, etc. The artist plays with the materials, whimsically, dressing up the letters with an overt wit, sometimes he risks overworking them (it seems, at times, he did not always trust the process he had set in motion.) And sometime the letters work flawlessly; he allows the materials themselves to dictate the form, creating a perfect dialectical synthesis of form and function.

A few nice subtexts underlie this piece as well: he used a font remarkably similar to Google’s; the IOU in Glorious is representational of the Chinese flag; one letter is comprised of a plastic lenticular of a fake Baroque painting which nicely opens the show back up into European art and Western taste; another is fake fur and pleather belts… brilliant.

Sloat’s installation works because its subtlety and variety is held in place by the quotation itself, a conceptual coup. This is not just another pile of unresolved materials; a pet peeve of mine concerning contemporary art is this notion that if quotidian objects are collected, particularly those relating to consumerism, then there is automatically commentary or concept. Ben Sloat’s work is exactly the opposite: he constructs a memorable and unique installation with the literal accumulation and surplus of capital into a quotation from a Chinese leader who had radically reshaped that nation into an Orwellian hybrid of capitalism and CCP rule.

A large envelope adorned with numerous Deng postage stamps slowly swivels in the centre of the gallery. It is the namesake for the show and an untouched artifact offering a detail of ordinary life: in motion, constantly being handled, animated; representative, perhaps, of some still living element of Deng’s legacy. Yet the piece is also a bit of a footnote, unresolved on its own. It punctuates the space, but left me perplexed.

A repeated image of an old man in a windbreaker reveals subtle variations in each of a triptych occupying the back wall. On a side wall, the same idea is repeated in two other diptychs. Sloat hired workers from a Chinese painting factory to copy well-known propaganda and memorial images of Deng. He then asked the normally anonymous proletariat to sign the works and become named artists within the show. This subtle gesture is one of my lasting impressions of Package from China, it is both generous and empowering in real and symbolic terms. I am surprised he didn’t go one further and completely reverse class dynamics by crediting these individual fabricators on the list of works, although this would, perhaps, change Sloat’s role to that of curator or patron.

The paintings themselves reveal the subjective decisions, conscious or not, of the painters. Each is unique. Some contain drastic omissions or re-envision Deng as much more amiable than the others. The triptych in back nails the idea and is a striking anchor and punctuation, as it were, for the entire the show. The other two diptychs say the same thing, but not as well. This series recalls Francis Alys’s Sign Painting Project (1993-97) in which he commissioned Mexican sign painters to repaint his paintings. The copy was then handed off to the next sign painter and the work (d)evolved, becoming simulacra. In the end, I wanted to see more from Sloat, more subjective proletarian interpretations, more Deng by the Sea.

The show represents a very interesting, new body of work that is more politically focused than Sloat’s earlier portfolio. It deals with the big issues of our time in an engaging and political way. The work echoes Baroque and Dada, Kay Rosen and Thomas Hirschhorn, Prop and Pop Art, all harmonised and composed with a humourous post-conceptual inclination. As a colleague of mine astutely pointed out: it is hard not to think of Deng’s expression in regards to the Irish economy’s recent ups and downs, of all the changes in values, and material conditions that liberalised capitalism swept in. Interestingly, the Celtic Tiger is even named after the Asian financial explosion that ‘pre-cursed’ it to the inevitable boom and bust of the market.

Jim Ricks is an artist based in Galway.

(1) pg. 7, Laurence Coates, Is China Capitalist?, Rattvisebocker, Sweden, 2000

All photos courtesy Jim Ricks

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Roads of Galway

The Roads of Galway

By Simon Fleming

Recent letters to the editor in the Galway Advertiser (Cycling on pavement is wrong — end of story, March 18, 2010, etc.) have complained about cyclists in pedestrian zones. But in fairness, while cyclists must abide by road rules, the roads of Galway are simply unsafe for everyone. The reasons are numerous: too many cars, medieval-era roads, crowds of pedestrians; no bike lanes and inadequate footpaths; limited and unreliable bus service; and an epidemic of under-penalised violations by motorists.

Two bikes riding out into traffic to get around a car and truck that are parked over double yellow lines AND in front a of a handicap spot.

Cyclists face the downright hostile and dangerous driving habits of the region’s drivers. While bicycles are vehicles on the road, they are rarely considered as such. This failure to account for cyclists can include, but is not limited to, situations such as dangerous passing, turning out of driveways or merging into traffic without looking for riders and often times pedestrians. Bad driving habits are simply dangerous driving habits.

Another basic safety issue here is the flagrant running of stop signs in Galway. These red octagons are more often than not taken as suggestions. For example, cars, without a second thought, will drive straight through the heavily pedestrianised Cross St stops.

Illegal parking is one of the most significant problems for cyclists and pedestrians alike in Galway. In this sense, the city is still a country village. Footpath parking is illegal under the 1997 Traffic & Parking Regulations and previous road traffic law. However, this bad habit, often done over double yellow lines, appears so ingrained in Galway car culture that it is taken for the norm. Problem sites, for example, are Abbeygate Street and Newcastle Road across from University Hospital. Potentially pleasant commercial districts are, instead, congested roads lined with illegally parked cars. “Oh, I won't be two minutes; I'm just picking up something in the shop here.” Well, actually, I don't care how long you will be. You are still the cause of an accident waiting to happen. Excuses like this are often overheard, but the bottom line is parking on the footpath leaves little to no room for pedestrians, some with babies in prams, Zimmer frames, wheelchairs, impaired visibility or mobility assistance devices. The point here is the danger it poses. Footpath parking obstructs the line of sight for both cyclists and pedestrians, who often enter traffic in order to get around these cars, risking life and limb.

Middle St.

Finally, the roads themselves. Irish roads as a whole are notoriously narrow and Galway is no exception. The city centre dates back a millennium and the roads were not designed for anything other than people, horses and carts. If traffic flows were re-considered, Galway’s roads and streets would be safer and more efficient. Streets could be converted to a one-way-only system; on street parking, at least during the daytime, could be eliminated; others simply need to be widened. These changes would provide a wider lane format for motor traffic, provide an expanded shoulder for bicycle lanes, and in some cases potential for light rail or bus right of ways. This in turn would ease congestion on a number of roads. However, while road improvement falls under long term development and restructuring, short term improvements could be made simply by implementing a reliable public education programme and enforcing road laws, with the consistent penalisation of violations and a firm court system (it was recently reported in Galway City Council Hands out sixty four parking tickets a day (March 25th, 2010, Galway Advertiser) that 70% of contested parking violations are overturned).

Let's not forget that for a few years Galway was the fastest growing city in Europe. Despite the recession, there is more wealth in the region than ever before and with that wealth there are more people and cars. There is also more pollution and traffic. Galway’s rush hour is as bad or worse than many cities with many times the population. If Galway wants to be recognised as a progressive contemporary city, it needs to remove the car out of the heart of Galway’s city centre and alleviate traffic (how many single occupants drivers are stuck in rush-hour traffic on a given day?). It needs to integrate accessible public transport, become pedestrian-friendly and promote the use of bicycles via its infrastructure. The city needs to improve the roads themselves, making space for traffic of all kinds (pedestrian, cycling, auto). The city has only presented token gestures so far. Tackling these issues requires the cooperation of urban planners, cyclists, the general public and drivers in partnership with a forward-thinking city council.

My recommendations are as follows:

Educate drivers

  • Provide improved or additional signage relating to cyclists and pedestrians. Remind drivers they are not the only ones on the road.
  • Enforce road laws with consistent penalisation of violations.
Improve Roads
  • Pedestrianise more streets
  • Expand the few current bike lanes to the city centre; an artery for cyclists is essential.
  • Convert more streets and lanes into a one-way-only system.
  • Eliminate street parking, at least during the daytime, on others.
  • Widen certain streets (Lough Atalia, Tuam Rd., Headford Rd.).
  • Commuter Lanes during rush hour.
Provide more parking
  • Consolidate reduced rate or free public parking into multi-storey car parks at the perimeter of the city centre. The Black Box car park is an ideal spot located between a major shopping area and the city centre.

Improve public transport in the long run

  • Make bus use cheaper, more frequent, and reliable. Why can’t buses run every 15 minutes to city centre?
  • A commuter lane incorporated and enforced.
  • Provide maps and timetables at every bus shelter.
  • Invest in light-rail infrastructure.
  • Provide other incentives for people to get out of the cars that choke our byways:
  • Working with groups such as the Galway Cycling Campaign, Cosain – Community Road Safety Action & Information, the city should promote the benefits of cycling through an expanded public education/information scheme. Not only is cycling healthy for people, it is healthier for the environment.

Simon Fleming is a Canadian artist, and an avid cyclist currently based in Galway.