Whitehot Magazine

New York Artists Leading with Zany, Cute, and Interesting

Tianyi Sun. After Place, 2023. 9 x 12 inches. Oil, acrylic, pastel, inkjet print, acetate, resin on panel. Courtesy of the artist. 

By QINGYUAN DENG April 9, 2024

In Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, cultural theorist Sianne Ngai offers an illuminating account of contemporary aesthetic experience under advanced capitalism, by focusing on elements of everyday life that were previously delegated to secondary status by critical discourses. Ngai’s revisionist argument is quite structured and straightforward: in the sphere of postmodern cultural production, zany, cute, and interesting, simultaneously generate and are conditioned by capital’s performativity, drive for information accumulation, and networked mediation With Ngai’s conceptual framework in mind, I turned to three artists’ practices, which respectively correspond to each of Ngai’s three aesthetic categories. 

Insisting on minor gestures shying away from declarations, manifestos, and didactics, these artists—Anna Ting Moller, Tianyi Sun, and Cecilia Caldiera—mine peripheral and clandestine knowledge for different modes of oppositional experiences.

Tianyi Sun. Hello Lilly. Courtesy of the artist. 

Interesting—On February 4th, I went to Greenpoint to see Cecilia Caldiera’s solo exhibition Our House at Subtitled. Adriana Furlong co-authored a compelling press release that contextualizes Caldiera’s practice in veins of contemporary spirituality, referencing Bataille’s theory of general economy without dropping his name. Looking at her site-responsive sculptures, ranging from open-ended fences standing on the wooden floor with no one to fend off or nothing to guard to loosely and causally arranged bricks sitting atop the former industrial structure of the gallery space, I feel a sense of disorientation that is worthy of celebration. Too often I go to exhibitions and can safely assume that my directions are already scripted in the ways works are placed, but during my visit to Subtitled I did not quite comprehend the relatedness (or lack thereof) between my body and the exhibited works. The circulation of aesthetic judgment strikes me as intuitively serial and recursive, evident in the abundance of gestures of mapping, cataloging, and indexing in the exhibition. Rhizomatic and constantly being invented anew, each sculpture references the other without demarcating the interpretive limit of its visual lexicon. In Cecilia’s works, imagined territories appear and disappear repeatedly, metaphorizing the loss of commons, the traditional foundation for radical democracy. Leaving the exhibition with no conclusion to take home, I have remained intrigued— a perfect example of how ‘interesting’ becomes the signifier of aesthetic value in the absence of transcendent.

Installation view of Cecilia Caldiera: OUR HOUSE at Subtitled NYC, New York (February 1 - March 3, 2024). Photographed by Garrett Carroll. Courtesy of Subtitled NYC. Left: Three suns over (2024), Steel, plastic, paper, core sample, Italian playing card. Right: 1⁄2 life: Act 1 (open) (2024), Wood, collected paper, wax, steel, copper.

Cute—In the afternoon, I traveled to Chinatown to visit Tianyi Sun’s studio. Sun’s multimedia installation and two-dimensional works are structurally embedded within the ongoing proliferation of information as memory vis-à-vis networked technology. This time, I got to see some of the more painterly wall pieces she had been working on. In these painting-adjacent objects, appropriated images sourced from online subcultures gain an infectious and seductive plasticity through the transfer process, thanks to the layering of mute acetate, epoxy resin, and plexiglass and the artist’s framing of these reconfigured components. There is a cuteness to this body of works, though they tend to be documentation and condensation of the symbolic violence inherent to consuming digital interfaces. Sun told me she intends to lay bare the infrastructure and context of these process-based objects, therefore revealing them specific investitures of power. Gazing at their vulnerable transparency, I came to identify a powerless attraction to these clinical and aloof surfaces, an intense desire to connect my subjectivity through tactile engagement to idealized virtual worlds til the reproduced image they represent becomes internalized with tender care. I am not sure if it would be the same feelings when I look at a cute animal, but Sun has always been exceptional at invoking minor feelings in her audience through psychological proximity and I wholeheartedly accept her magic of mimesis.

Detail of Anna Ting Möller, Whip and Tongue, 2024. Scoby-Kombucha, glass, water, soap, acid/vinegar, suture seam, kombucha growing sculpture by tea and sugar, tubes, porcelain, sisal rope. Photographed by Anna Ting Möller. Courtesy the artist.

Zany—Lastly, on this postmodern trip to identify these aesthetic categories that hide in plain sight, on the night of Saturday, February 3rd, I went to the DIY space Tutu Gallery in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn for Anna Ting Möller’s opening. Upon entering the gallerist April Z’s apartment gallery, I was struck with how Möller transformed the domestic space of quotidian inhabitation into an experiment in testing the limit of creative freedom in the face of pervasive precarity. A dooresque sculpture, Tiny mountain (2024), erected next to the rear door, along with another object in the shape of an empty glass container House on the hill (2024) at the opposite corner of the living room, set the scene, namely the uncanny theater of pathological intimacy, intimacy without real occupants. A zany feeling became poignantly pronounced, as I searched for the performer Möller herself in the room, who had promised activation of the mixed-media apparatus Whip and tongue, only to comedically realize that I had missed the performance and all that was left was the subject of performative labor itself. Without the input of air from Möller’s concerted breathing, and thus wrinkled and shrunken, two bins of a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast appear melancholic and uphold their fragility. Elsewhere in the room, the meticulous and varying methods applied by the artist to her dehydrated kombucha, which then takes on shapes of bodily parts, suggest a confusion of mastery and servitude (who’s brewing who?) and blur the line between affective labor and concerns of practicality. On the train home, I watched a rather amateur video documentation of the performance from a friend. As I desperately attempted to trace the vague movements of Möller’s kombucha on the screen, I felt unconnected, despite my conscious efforts to channel the fluidity, or lack thereof, of my own body, which saddened me. Anna’s demand for emotional (dis)identification seemed far greater than the intensity my then-tipsy self could afford on that cold night. Or perhaps my failure in transference was exactly the point. Still, I found these transient moments of unfamiliar eruption eerily charming. A zany performance indeed. WM

Qingyuan Deng

Qingyuan Deng is a curator and writer, based between Shanghai and New York City. He is interested in relational aesthetics, experimental filmmaking, and the intersection between literary culture and visual arts.

view all articles from this author