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Its façade painted entirely black, the space stands out like a sore thumb on a block lined with white edifices and is open to the public by appointment only. Pounding on the squat structure's fortified door like a process server trying to gain entrance, I thought either some dicey enterprise might be taking place in the joint or I was barking up the wrong tree. As it turned out, I was at the right place, but the gallery has chosen to keep its profile on the down-low because, as an assistant informed me, "We have very expensive things inside." The place is operated by private dealer Emmanuel Javogue and predominantly houses the Frenchman's collection of contemporary art and iconic furniture from the Sixties and Seventies. I was there to check out Magnus Sigurdarson's installation, I'm So Much Better than You.
Sigurdarson's piece features four tons of Miami New Times papers interlocked like bricks to form a hip-high wall that curves around one of the corner walls. It houses a DVD player and monitor on which the artist is shown performing a puppet show in Xiamen, China. Sigurdarson, who was born in Iceland, filmed the performance during a three-month residency there last autumn. He debuted the work in November, during the Shanghai International Biennial Urban Sculpture Exhibition, which was organized and curated by Javogue.
For that project, titled Project Mass Media-Ch'eng Huang Magnus, the artist erected a 25-ton temple called a Ch'eng Huang, traditionally found in most Chinese cities made from recycled newspaper. It reflected what he terms "China's mythological history mixed with contemporary media frenzy and soap opera culture." That work was installed at Shanghai Mingyan Art Center, where it apparently ruffled feathers. "Most temples there are named after a local dignitary or important person whose soul is supposed to protect the community," Sigurdarson observes. "I think some people felt it was disrespectful for me to name the temple after myself."
Although he says the Chinese ardently embrace globalism, the six-foot-tall, blond, blue-eyed artist felt out of place and became motivated to work with the concept of the "Other" while exploring lingering remnants of xenophobia and a feeling an ancient culture is being tarred by the West. "I wanted to absorb their unique culture rather than looking for fake Gucci bags in an alley or experiencing a belief that things are somehow better in the West."
Ironically I'm So Much Better than You, with its imposing mass and volume, evokes a sense of the wall erected to sequester China from the rest of the world. The work shares relevance with plans for a wall to separate the United States from its neighbors to the south, which might mark a move toward isolationism. On the video, a neatly groomed Sigurdarson, shot from the head up, manipulates a couple of historical characters from a Chinese children's puppet theater. Taken from a traditional story Journey to the West the Monkey King and the Tang Monk share a stage with the artist's mugging face and are shown bopping him on the noggin like Punch and Judy as he repeats, "I'm so much better than you," or "I'm way better than you," over and over. The puppets pummel the artist until his hair is disheveled, his face red and puffy, and his words slurred.
Sigurdarson says his visit was an eye-opener, but laments that China risks its identity through an immersion into the foreign. "It can be a difficult place, but I wish it would try to stay Chinese a little longer. There were Starbucks everywhere. I wanted a different experience."
Some of the more astounding works at Javogue Fine Arts are by contemporary Chinese artists. Chinese painting, one of the fastest-growing segments of the contemporary art market, hit record sales this past April at Sotheby's, bringing in $13.2 million, much more than the auction's upper estimate of $8 million. The event set new auction records for twenty artists.
Javogue, who has been dealing in that market for years and who claims he "sold the first Picasso in China," points out a painting by Zhong Biao that depicts a Chinese girl smoking a cigar and drinking a Red Bull at a bar. He mentions the piece has rocketed in value. "The market there is soaring; his works have become astronomical," he quips. Javogue's eclectic collection ranges across all media, boasts some big names, and embraces a touch of retro-philia. One of the more unusual pieces in the dealer's warehouse is a work called Hiroshima by Scottish artist Charles Sandison. The artist has created computer software that sends random numbers floating up and down a plasma TV screen. The numbers drift together, forming images of children who were killed at Hiroshima, before breaking apart and rejoining in an endless stream of portraits. A wall-size video still by Mariko Mori depicts the Japanese artist sporting a platinum wig and spacy glam getup, looking like an extra from Roger Vadim's 1968 sci-fi campfest Barbarella.