Fragile Figures: Beings in Time
21c Museum Hotel (Nashville)
September 2019 through January 2021
By JOE NOLAN, December 2020
The smartphone selfie is the most ubiquitous and pervasive expression of portraiture in the 21st century. But these subjective, reflexive images are contextualized in digital environments – primarily social media platforms – that can be purposefully reductive and redacted. These sites can transform their most ambitious and ardent users from whole, complex people living actual lives into streamlined, perfected personas representing lifestyle brands. Fragile Figures: Beings and Time at the 21c Museum Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee is a presentation of contemporary art portraiture that offers the antithesis of Instagram scrolling and tiresome TikTok-ing. Instead of editing and cropping the awkward bits of bodies and behaviors away, this multimedia exhibition illuminates the range of human emotions and personalities to examine individuals in social, cultural and political intersections of vulnerability and power.
Mohau Modisakeng’s massive self portraits are formally beautiful works of black-and-white photography. The deep blacks of the South African artist’s skin, garments and accessories are printed on glowing white watercolor paper, creating a dramatic contrast between the images of the artist and their backgrounds. Modisakeng’s childhood in Soweto was marked by the oppressive violence of the last days of South Africa’s Apartheid-era – a life and death contrast between black and white. The artist’s photos examine violence, the instruments of violence, and the effects they leave on the bodies and psychologies of those affected by them. In a suite of images Modisakeng is armed with machete-like blades and cattle prods, and draped in a long black robe – the garment recalls traditional robes of African tribes as well as the garb of the Western legal and religious classes. Most striking is his donning of fedora hats over the kind of leather blinders you’d normally strap to a horse’s head. The blinders nod to the willful ignorance required to sustain a violent racist regime. The hat speaks to the gullibility and complicity of the educated, professional class which is most vulnerable to propaganda, and who benefit from maintaining an oppressive status quo.
Marco Veronese’s S.O.S. World was created in 2010, but the title and the subject couldn’t be more timely with America’s Covid-19 body count creeping grimly passed the milestone of 300,000 and the global death toll at 1.7 million. This work is typical of Veronese’s multimedia collages which often combine photographic images with textured silicone inserts, and S.O.S. World is made of nine separate panels that form the uneven surface of a square. The elements on each panel combine to form the image of a skull tattooed with a map of the world. Veronese is an environmental artist and a member of Cracking Art – the collective behind 21c’s iconic, chromatic penguin sculptures. Veronese’s art normally points to how depleted resources affect interconnected environmental systems. In 2020, it feels like S.O.S. World is pointing to the vulnerabilities of our interconnected human civilization.
Chito Yoshida’s Love for Sale photography series focuses on Japanese host club culture: cocktail bars where Japanese women can purchase the platonic company of attractive men. Fragile Figures includes three of the photos from the series that focus solely on the young men who present themselves in excessive fashions and hairstyles in the setting of the glamorous spaces where they work. The images are saturated with bold colors and sparkling light, but these photo’s subjects seem bored and distracted in their fitted suits and colorful coiffures. Yoshida manages to capture the behind-the-scenes doldrums of manufactured desire as surely as Araki’s candid images of Tokyo’s 1980s sex industry golden age.
In addition to photography, Fragile Figures: Beings in Time includes painting, video, sculpture and installation art. The exhibition runs through January. WM