He Xiangyu’s first solo show in New York, Soft Dilemma at Andrew Kreps is a triple threat of thought-provoking sculpture, painting, and video. His work lays out a blueprint for exploding Western supremacy in art, not through activism, but through investigation and excellence.
Walking into the gallery I was greeted by a diagonal row of chairs, found objects from a German school, graffitied with messages of teenage love and post-war pop culture. The origin of the chairs is a clear nod to Western/American-style-capitalism’s dominance in the Art World. Just behind the row, is a smaller replica of each seat. Through duplication, the miniatures fortify the larger objects’ status as worthy of consideration. At the same time, they tear down and mock the state of Art, alluding to the fact that much of what passes as art are just trivial design fetishes, akin to the miniatures Vitra makes for furniture collectors.
The artist’s next blow is landed with a cast aluminum sculpture of a boy. Presumably, the sculptor himself at some point in his life. Where Charles Ray would obsess over a polished surface, Xiangyu leaves his welds visible. The vulnerability of the boy plays with stereotypes of Asian masculinity but never becomes didactic. The stance of the figure and material make what we see a sculpture, not a monument, and for that reason it succeeds.
The one moment of failure in the show occurs on the north wall of the gallery. The artist cast a cardboard egg holder in solid gold and placed a single egg inside, an obvious and unimaginative commentary on the value of life and China’s One Child Policy.
This lapse is more than made up for in the second half of the show which is spearheaded by an impressive installation of twenty framed works. They comprise a two-story painting of red, black, and green abstractions – spanning the atrium between the ground floor and basement. Each composition is formally pleasing and the piece’s ambition, in terms of size, is balanced by its humility as works on paper huddled together, rather than a wall of discrete canvasses. Conceptually, these “palette paintings” have their origins in a brief stay the artist had in the United States, and were a response to his struggles to communicate verbally. If we still can’t understand everything he says, we can certainly appreciate much of what he does.
The jewel of the show is a video installation in the basement, “Terminal 3”, (2016-2019) about young people from Sierra Leone and Ethiopia moving to rural China to study acrobatics. In its own artful way, it talks about the ascent of China, Africa, and their peoples; as well as the decline of the West that birthed “Art.” Although the work is hardly an apology for the Communist government and its treatment of the Uyghurs, the Christian and Muslim lives the acrobats lead while guests at the academy do raise questions about the specter of China as a de-jure monolithic human rights abuser. Without having to even “mouth the words,” the West’s de facto dehumanization of minorities is exposed. The most brilliant success of the film is highlighting black lives away from colonial violence. The young Africans cook, train, and look to better themselves in a world that seems unburdened, or at least unconcerned with, white colonialism or white guilt.
Each medium that is employed combines formal excellence with a genuine interest in the lives of people liberated from their historical pigeonholes. This is where we find Xiangyu’s blueprint for the future.