As New York City’s biggest contemporary art fair, the Armory Show is a major global event frequented by art lovers, collectors, dealers, gallerists and celebrities. The show spotlights the most prominent and provocative 20th– and 21st-century art through its Galleries, Insights, Presents and Platform sections.
Its Focus section, however, is often the most anticipated – devoted entirely to new, rarely seen art by emerging artists from around the globe. Walking through its endless booths of drawings, paintings, installations, videos, photography, performance art and sculpture is a useful exercise in pattern recognition. Besides providing a platform for buying art and discovering new talent, art fairs stimulate critical thinking. Trained eyes can spot and organize the displayed works into social, political and cultural themes, seeking a glimpse into the current collective consciousness and where the world could be headed. When I stepped into the airy, high-ceilinged piers of the show this year I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I could definitely sense sinister undertones.
The Focus section’s theme this year revolved around “the body mediated by technology.” Explains curator Gabriel Ritter, “Despite technology’s ever-quickening pace, we remain bound in many ways to our material bodies.” These reflections on the physical realm in a post-technological era took many forms.
Tony Oursler’s robotic multimedia glass sculptures with distorted faces and exposed circuitry question the intelligence of A.I. systems. Tishan Hsu embedded half-hidden organs and flesh-colored blobs into machine-like apparatus, commenting on the technological deformation of our weird, wired human bodies. Oliver Laric and Aleksandra Domanovic recreated ancient Roman statues as semi-transparent 3-D printed sculptures, exploring reproducibility in the Internet age. Constant Dullaart’s mirror installation was covered in hundreds of phone sim cards to symbolize a “fake army to stand up in the war against the current American social media revolution and the false validation system in journalism based on follower counts.” A popular favorite was Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “pond” installation of jets shooting tiny streams of vapor to reproduce the onlooker’s face, which wowed viewers as well as made them reflect on an age of hyper-surveillance.
Amongst all the tech-inspired artwork, one striking piece was an installation by Tabita Rezaire, a French-Guyanese self-proclaimed digital shaman, that meditated on negative representations of the black female body, cyber-racism and “decolonial healing.” It consisted of a pink gynecological examination chair attached to a monitor that played a looping video for the soothing of wombs, which the artist believes are “generational, spiritual and ancestral portals.”
Colombian artist María Evelia Marmolejo’s performance photographs used menstrual blood to depict the woman’s body as a war zone, protesting the brutal torture and rape of peasant and university women by the Colombian Army during the 1970s.
Mary Sibande’s purple sculptures allude to birth in the metaphorical sense: the birth of progress. The two mannequins feature a woman and her emancipated alter ego, telling the story of post-apartheid South Africa. Sibande refers to the sculptural blobs that hang over their heads like a chandelier as “embryos” and “non-winged ceiling beings.” She further explains, “In a way, they’re like her babies, but it’s almost as if they’ve given birth to her.”
The show also highlighted War Woman II (2014), an African glass sculpture by Joyce J. Scott, whose work employs a strong maternal theme. Huang Rui’s Dream No. 3 (1983–2009) was another painting eerily reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale.
While we’re on the The Handmaid’s Tale (and impatiently awaiting the second season of the novel’s Hulu adaption), recent rulings by the Mississippi government have made the novel’s dystopian premise become a closer reality. Governor Phil Bryant just signed the toughest abortion ban in the nation, prohibiting almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Then there’s the Trump administration’s new announcement outlining its priorities for a major family planning program, Title X. Not only does it make no reference to contraception, it also expresses the intention to pursue conservative approaches to birth control, such as abstinence and “fertility awareness.”
Given this week’s announcements, the Armory Show’s references to the body and its control by outside forces may turn out to be prophetic. It just goes to show that art often holds the power to foresee the future and guide our instincts, whether the rest of us see it coming or not.