Nyugen E Smith’s fascinating found object art
For interdisciplinary artist Nyugen E Smith, the origins of his new show go back to around 2009, when a chance encounter in a high school history class ignited his imagination over the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I was substituting for a history teacher, when I saw all these VHS tapes and was attracted to one that read ‘Lumumba’. I took it to see what it was about and popped it in the VCR in a free period. I had never heard of Patrice Lumumba before, and everything was so fascinating to me.”
So began Smith’s interest with the history, culture and global impacts of the DRC that has resulted in Ancient Future Memory, showing at Cultural DC thorough 12 March. Exploring what Smith has gleaned from his years-long interest in the DRC, the show offers sculptures and mixed media pieces on watercolor paper and is notable for Smith’s use of reclaimed materials. It incorporates bits of things, like fabric, tarp, rubber hoses and old bottle caps, that he found while in Kinshasa.
Although the use of found materials is now central of Smith’s artistry, it originated out of necessity, when he was emerging as an artist with insufficient resources to pursue his art. “I was a budding artist and didn’t have much money for art supplies,” he said. “In Jersey City we had all of these buildings, and we would salvage for found objects and materials to work with.” It also goes back to the years he spent in Trinidad as a child living with his grandparents, where utilizing found materials in novel way is enmeshed in the way of life. “So much in the built environment in Trinidad is built with reclaimed materials, so that way of making things was already in my visual vocabulary.”
For Ancient Future Memory, Smith was particularly inspired by ritual objects made by the Luba people, who have inhabited lands in the Congo for centuries. He first discovered these objects during a visit to the Congo’s national art museum in Kinshasa. “I was just really struck by their beauty and their difference from art objects in other parts of Africa. I was struck by the elegance in the simplicity.”
Smith found himself especially drawn to Luba lukasas, or memory boards, which are used to map the historical, political, and territorial memories of the Luba people. He found these objects extraordinarily sophisticated and beautiful, and he felt especially attached to how lukasas act as maps. “I liked the idea that they’re a way of mapping, because in my work I deal a lot with maps.”
Conceptually, lukasas worked their way into Ancient Future Memory through the tension between between protecting a culture’s memory, but also allowing outside forces to infiltrate. Smith was struck by how one must be initiated in order to read a lukasa and interpret the memories it holds. He found this akin to what he was attempting to do in creating his art. “These things are what I’m thinking of when I’m trying to represent a place but also keep these sorts of things secret.”
This can be seen in a piece like Bundlehouse: Migrant Magic, which depicts a person carrying a map, while at the same time being a container for a map. In the figure’s arched posture and the heavy yet delicate load he bears, Migrant Magic conjures a sense of both precarity and determination. It also impinges notions of migration, while indicating how our histories can be integral to where we are headed. “I liked this idea of giving homage to the past while going to the future, this is exactly what I’m thinking about.”
Ancient Future Memory is a part of Smith’s larger Bundlehouse series, which originated in 2005, when he happened to see photographer Chenoa Maxwell’s shots of a refugee camp in Uganda during a trip to London. He was struck by how the refugees had used reclaimed materials to build their camps, almost as though they were sculptures. The photos also inspired Smith to raise awareness of the global impacts of the wars of extraction in the region that had contributed to internal displacement and violence. “I couldn’t get those photos out of my head, and I started making drawings on the barf bag in the back of the seat of the airplane on my way back home from the exhibition in London.”
Although Bundlehouse is based in the African diaspora, for Smith the project has a global scope, tracing the web of interconnections as the effects of the diaspora has been felt worldwide. “I started to find through lines and connections to the African diaspora, the Caribbean being one of them. When we think about the Caribbean as ground zero for climate change, all of these different types of circumstances perpetuate a living that I would describe as Bundlehouse.”
But even though the series is strongly rooted in particular forms of historical wrongdoing, for Smith it ultimately transcends particular identities and events to implicate a basic part of the human experience. “Bundlehouse is not just about the structures made of these found materials, it’s a wider concept – thinking about what it means to rebuild your life by picking up the pieces again after a traumatic event. Building these structures within the context of a traumatic event or crisis.”
Ultimately, Smith’s art is all about deconstruction and reconstruction, integration and layers. The intricacy of his work in Ancient Future Memory is reflective of how he builds his artistic practice through various different forms of artistic expression. Smith is always drawn toward the linkages, attempting to elaborate the web of interconnections that reveal the complexity of the world we live in. “When I’m in the studio, I’m constantly cutting away from one piece to add to another piece. Nothing is really safe or sacred in the studio until it’s completely finished. There are all of these layers – if one is to look closely, you can tell that there is a history there.”
- Nyugen E Smith’s Bundlehouse: Ancient Future Memory is on show at CulturalDC until 12 March
Vancouver to remove unsanctioned spider art creeping-out transit riders – Vancouver Sun
City staff are looking into how to remove a large metallic spider from under a high-traffic bridge on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
The artwork, which startled some arachnophobic SkyTrain riders when it was installed earlier this month, was created by pop artist Junko Playtime.
In an email to Postmedia News on Friday, city staff say they were made aware of the unsanctioned spider artwork located in a corridor for SkyTrain and CN/BNSF Rail.
The installation wasn’t done in consultation with the city or the rail corridor partners, city staff said. They’re trying to figure out the best way to remove the artwork so there is no damage to the bridge structure or rail lines.
Staff said the artist will have the ability to claim the work through the city’s impoundment process.
According to Playtime’s Instagram page, the eight-foot-diameter spider was installed at night recently on the north bank below the bridge between North Grandview Highway and Broadway.
Playtime, from Montreal, has gained a reputation over the past two years for installing very large and far-out insect like futuristic sculptures from scrap metal and household items.
The artist called this latest spider creation “Phobia 2023. Time to face our fears.”
— With files from David Carrigg
Artist behind guerilla Vancouver art piece launches campaign to ‘save spidey’ – Global News
The artist behind a guerilla sculpture installation in East Vancouver that the city plans to remove is fighting to save the work.
The art work in question is a large, black spider made of recycled materials affixed beneath an overpass near Broadway and Victoria Drive, and visible from the SkyTrain Millennium Line.
The city says the work was unsanctioned, and that it is in the midst of plans on how to best remove the spider.
The anonymous Montreal-based artist who goes by the moniker Junko Playtime is calling on supporters to contact the city and ask it to leave the guerilla installation, titled Phobia, in place.
Unsanctioned spider sculpture seen from Skytrain to be removed
“I think it’s a shame, there’s are a lot of people that really enjoy the artwork and would love for it to stay there. Sure, there are some people that might not like it, but it’s impossible to please everyone with public art,” Playtime told Global News in an email.
“The work is positioned in a way that doesn’t put anything or anyone in danger and can easily be ignored if someone doesn’t want to look at it.”
Junko Playtime contrasted the city’s reaction to the spider to the mounting piles of trash along the rail line where it was installed, saying it doesn’t make sense to remove the art but not the garbage.
“In terms of this piece, the city didn’t pay a dime for it. It’s built out of waste material collected in the streets so it’s essentially cleaning up some of the litter and there’s a huge amount of people that really enjoy it — seems like a pretty good deal to me,” he said.
City crews remove satan statue erected alongside busy Vancouver roadway
The City of Vancouver said the artwork was installed without review or approval, and that it began planning to remove it after complaints from the public.
It pointed to the city’s official public art program, which selects works through a jury process or its Public Art Committee, and that all approved pieces are vetted by engineers to ensure safety, structural integrity, longevity and maintenance plans.
“The installation of public art on key infrastructure, such as a bridge, would require due process to ensure safety. The unsanctioned spider artwork has not been through this review process,” it said in a statement Friday.
The cost of removing the spider remains unclear, according to the city.
The artist responded by suggesting leaving the piece in place was a chance for Vancouver to shake its dubious reputation as “no fun city,” which he said it had earned “for a reason.”
The spider is not the first artwork by Junko Playtime to appear in Metro Vancouver.
Last month, Habitat, a sanctioned piece he created from reclaimed materials appeared outside the Bentall Centre Gallery as a part of the Vancouver Mural Festival’s Winter Arts Festival.
Last year, a large, yellow, insect-like sculpture he created called Queen BX1000 appeared in an empty lot near the Fraser River near the Canada Line.
The artist, who said his work revolves around themes of biodiversity and ecological responsibility, said he designed the spider installation specifically for the location where he placed it, telling Global News, “the cliff face covered overhead by the large metal and concrete bridge really felt like a fitting environment for a creation like this to inhabit.”
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Gagosian’s DALL-E–Enabled Art Exhibition Throws Us Headfirst into the Uncanny Valley
The arrival of AI text generators and chatbots like Chat GPT and Bing (or is she named Sydney?) over the last year has shattered the assumption that creativity is the sole domain of humans, and other living things. But, while image generators like DALL-E and Midjourney are the visual equivalent technologies, the same crisis has not quite registered in the art world.
Perhaps, this lack of response stems from a lack of opportunity. No longer! Earlier this week, mega-gallery Gagosian opened an exhibition of works by DALL-E, which, like its AI image generator competitors, can turn a simple text prompt into an image in seconds. Might I find some crisis awaiting me there? (Yes).
The exhibition is produced by Bennet Miller, a film director who has been nominated for Oscars for Foxcatcher (2014) and Capote (2005); the works, and the exhibition are untitled. Over the past several years, Miller has been making a documentary about AI, through which he interviewed Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, who gave him beta access to DALL-E far before the rest of the public.
The images DALL-E produces produce range from obviously amiss (twisted fingers, a fuzzy swirl of pixels) to hauntingly accurate in their targeting of one’s request. Despite these occasional flaws, no longer is the AI image quickly clocked for what it is by that tell-tale sheen of psychedelic patterning. It’s no wonder then why the word “real” was invoked, again and again, by the audience at Miller’s opening this week.
One woman I pass gestures at one of Miller’s prints, a large piece laid on with deep, dark, wet-looking ink onto sepia-toned paper, depicting a child as she stares at the viewer while the wind tosses her hair. It looks as if it comes from the Victorian era, dated not just by its coloring but by what looks to be a simple, linen dress of the era. It’s all projection. The woman tells her friend, “It’s not real.” There is no linen dress.
Well, so what. It’s a bit melodramatic to behave as if we don’t already live in an era of unreal-ness. And anyways, since when does art require a real-world referent to represent something “real”? Since when is “realness” a metric?
Sure, many of Miller’s works look like they could be photographs, but many are heavily stylized. Often extremely out of focus and piled on with grain, there is just enough form to suggest a subject or a landscape. Some of them seem to represent momentous or historical moments in the past. Here is a profile that looks Native American, extending an arm that could be a wing, that could be cultural dress. Here is a mushroom cloud, as if from an explosion, but flattened in a way that, perhaps, Nature wouldn’t allow. A machine like a train but it’s not. A disk, just a flat circle of some substance, held in the hands of a woman. Beguilingly simple, pointing back to nothing.
I spot Fran Lebowitz. Blunt, coarse bob, big coat, tortoiseshell glasses perched on her nose and another set in her welt pocket. Loafers! It really is her. She’s thumbing through the exhibition text that was produced for the show by author Benjamin Labatut using ChatGPT, an AI text generator also produced by OpenAI. It turns out Miller also interviewed Lebowitz for his documentary, though it doesn’t seem clear why. She repeats an apology to me several times: she doesn’t know what this means, the exhibition, the fact of its genesis. But she makes an effort.
“These are not real photographs, but what are real photographs?” Lebowtiz begins. “Are the only real photographs the ones made on film, not the digital ones? My friend Peter Hujar would say so.”
The slippery slope tack: if we’ve accepted that cameras do not make the photographs, but that photographers do, why should any succeeding technology that the human mind directs for its purpose not be judged similarly? That is, as a genuine, human act of creation. I ask Lebowitz a clumsy question, something like, ‘Isn’t the labor of trying to make something worth something?” She says of course. What are we even talking about? It’s too basic but I can’t help it.
The concern about realness comes from two places. Where did these images come from and can we credit Miller with a “real” creative act. It’s really one problem: what do we do with this other actor in the picture, AI? What spasm was it that gave birth to these images, that Miller guided and curated?
It’s telling that these new tools are called AI “generators” not “creators”. Generation is to bring into being, but behind a veil. Generation has its roots in the phenomenon of conception, which is not done with the conscious mind but the secret efforts of the body. It is only in this way that I can relate to the concept of AI, this thing that brings into being without conscious, all the indifference and capability of nature. But this is false analogy (is there a word for anthropomorphizing but for nature? Naturmorphizing?). I’m not sure why I can’t see it as an extension of all the other amazing technological capabilities with their hidden mechanisms. I don’t know how my computer works.
Walking around Miller’s show I’m surprised that so many people look happy and curious whereas I feel bitterly on guard. I look closely at each image, which range from looking like vintage photographs to charcoal drawings, and investigate for signs of their computerly origins. I’m not to be tricked!
As images, though, I do like them. They remind me of a picture book I once had and spark my love of old and whimsical looking things, for what that’s worth. A lot of AI images I’ve seen do this, that is, open the door to alternate, fantastical worlds, which says a lot about the people who request these images. There’s a lovely impulse to see something wondrous, magical, not of our reality. But how tightly and terribly joined is this desire for the fantastic to the impish twitch for falsity.
By now, haven’t we all seen those AI generated images of Trump getting arrested? How quickly we come back to Earth. One day it’ll feel normal. For now it’s tripping me up.
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