The German artist installs himself in a Chinatown mall.
Kai Althoff: Häuptling Klapperndes Geschirr, Tramps, 75 East Broadway, New York City, through January 20, 2019
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A gallery named Tramps has taken up residence in a series of shops on the second floor of the New York Mart mall under the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown. Its current exhibition, Häuptling Klapperndes Geschirr (Chief Rattling Dishes), by the German artist Kai Althoff, presents thirty-six new drawings and paintings within an immersive installation. Founded by Parinaz Mogadassi, Tramps sometimes operates in affiliation with the Michael Werner Gallery (one of Althoff’s dealers and Mogadassi’s employer). In January 2017, when Mogadassi first moved in, the mall’s second floor was sparsely occupied by Chinese vendors and the record store 2 Bridges Music Arts. While ground-floor businesses continued to thrive, many on the second floor had closed. Mogadassi and Werner—who maintains posh galleries on the Upper East Side, in London, and outside Berlin—have since rented out most of the available second-floor stalls, eleven of which Althoff has taken over. His project initially appears as if in strange poetic allegiance with its surroundings, but in fact, the artist makes a complex community of individuals little more than a backdrop for his work.
In Häuptling Klapperndes Geschirr, the former stores become moody period rooms that lend a frisson of authenticity to the framed works that hang within. Some shops are left seemingly as they were by ex-tenants, with wires dangling and slatted walls partially painted. Others have been transformed by the artist into an elaborate, encompassing mise-en-scène made from painted tarps, mounds of insulation, bamboo rods, and unstable cardboard flooring. For those who come to 75 East Broadway to see Althoff’s show, the lively network of street-level vendors selling everything from bitter melon to dress shoes simply becomes part of the ambience. In stark contrast, the installation on the second floor creates a tableau of disuse, destruction, or halted transition. This theatrical treatment is a hallmark of the artist’s practice; he often nestles his paintings and sculptures within installations that mimic desuetude or demolition inside pristine, climate-controlled white cubes. At the New York Mart mall, though, the effect depends on the slippage between Althoff’s interpretive overlay and the reality of the setting.
Althoff’s moves are straight out of the modernist playbook. A search for authenticity famously led Gauguin to Tahiti and Picasso to the brothels of Avignon. Althoff, too, has long flirted with the Other, using the exoticizing language of French post-impressionism and German expressionism to imbue his portraits of soldiers, monks, and Hasidic men with homoerotic tension. The subject matter of the paintings and drawings on view in the Chinatown mall, which were produced specifically for this exhibition, offer a freewheeling pastiche of “Asian” culture writ large. In line with the nihilism that pervades Althoff’s oeuvre, the works depict intense narratives of torment and psychodrama. Many render Asian and black figures as essentialist caricatures: pictured faceless or semi-nude; clad in woven grasses; armed with spears, bows, and arrows; engaged in cannibalism; smoking opium. Althoff’s brushwork, spatial composition, and decorative style owe an obvious debt to the illustrated handscrolls and monochrome ink paintings of the Edo period in Japan. The figures and their activities draw on representations of Zen Buddhism in East Asian art.
Yet on the whole, non-European cultures are simply metabolized as visual references, their individual histories and internal complexities disregarded. Building on the energy of the goods being sold downstairs, the atmosphere is akin to a derelict thrift store hawking orientalist riffs abandoned by their owners. Again we encounter the modernist magic trick of effacing entire cultural histories by aestheticizing them away from themselves. Althoff reopens the wound of colonial erasure as if the process of decolonization—clearly not yet finished—had never even begun. Like many gestures of colonization, the exhibition uses misplaced nostalgia for actually existing cultures as a smoke screen for complicity with their destruction, in this case through gentrification.
Despite abundant institutional recognition and the fact that his work can sell for six figures at auction, Althoff poses as an outsider, here enabled by Mogadassi. (The show’s sales are co-brokered by Tramps, Michael Werner Gallery, and Althoff’s other dealer, Barbara Gladstone.) Initially beguiling, Althoff’s theatrical treatment of the mall also borders on perverse, given the structural economic and cultural conditions that make such an exhibition possible. His paintings purposely reproduce stereotypes of foreignness and degeneracy in an installation that embellishes on the aftermath of urban change. The livelihood and necessities of an immigrant community are taken as raw material for high culture, and appropriation stands in for Asian representation. Lured by authenticity, Mogadassi and Werner have inserted themselves into a preexisting ecosystem in order to offer an urban safari for art world voyeurs en route from Tribeca to Cologne.
But Althoff knows he’s being bad, and that’s part of the ploy. His work self-consciously revives and refurbishes modernism’s fascination with the Other. Yet because this gesture is shrouded in ambiguity—the press release is a disjointed musing about cats, for example—it’s difficult to discern meaning or intent, or to situate Althoff’s project within recent discussions about cultural appropriation. Last year, artist Omer Fast transformed James Cohan Gallery, a street-level space on the corner of Grand and Eldridge, into a caricature of a Chinatown business. The exhibition attracted widespread indignation and protests from the community. Althoff’s installation performs similar gestures behind a veil of gentility and detachment, but has yet to face public pushback. Possible objections are named in advance: Althoff has said in the catalog for his recent mid-career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and in an interview with Mousse magazine that he does “not care what others seem to perceive as violent” in his work; that he mustn’t “step into the world like [he’s] walking on eggs”; that being an artist means “being graced with being able to do whatever occurs to [him].” Althoff seems to view acknowledgment of harm as an infringement on his right to do as he pleases. Issues of cultural ownership and exchange are far from clear-cut, and we don’t claim to have all the answers, but the power and privilege wielded at Tramps are unmistakable.
In mounting Häuptling Klapperndes Geschirr on the second floor of the New York Mart mall, Althoff and Mogadassi occupy territory in a neighborhood under siege by real estate developers who use art galleries as Trojan horses for gentrification. The content of the exhibition and footprint of the gallery evidence disregard for immigrant residents and their allies, who continue to resist gentrification and displacement; they also entrench the power imbalance between art galleries and the Chinese community. What’s more, the exhibition presumes the passivity and servitude of Asians and Asian Americans, from the paintings’ caricatured renderings, to the gallery’s use of the surrounding community as a backdrop, to the nearby restaurant called upon to provide a thematically appropriate venue for the post-reception party. Those who do not want to examine their own complicity claim that nothing can be done to resist gentrification and rebalance power. But community groups such as the Chinatown Art Brigade, Art Against Displacement, the Chinatown Tenants Union, the Chinatown Working Group, and the W.O.W. Project are paying close attention. And they know otherwise.
Jamie Chan is an artist from Los Angeles now based in Brooklyn. She makes paintings and works in art education. Her work is currently included in Nancy Shaver’s installation Love and Trouble at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as part of One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art.
Leah Pires is a writer and curator living in New York, where she is a doctoral candidate in art history at Columbia University and a recent graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program. She writes about art and politics, most recently Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and Donald Trump’s lies for Art in America.