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Hansel & Gretel

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ai Weiwei

Park Avenue Armory - New York

By Taliesin Thomas

In the classic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, the young male protagonist leaves a trail of bread crumbs in the forest as means for him and his sister to return home. This attempt to outwit their cruel stepmother-who convinced their father to get rid of his own children so the adults can survive a famine-turns out to be a failure because the crumbs are devoured by birds. Among the subversive themes of that narrative is the notion that children eat too much. A behemoth site-specific exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in New York exploiting the same name, Hansel & Gretel, re-contextualizes certain aspects of the age-old fable, notably that we consume a great deal, and these days our appetite for the digital sphere as accessed through private technology is among the greatest of seductive thrills. But given the pervasive nature of technology today and that privacy is nearly impossible, Hansel & Gretel affirms this outright.

The first thing to notice about this unusual exhibition is the larger-than-life cast of characters who collaborated on this commissioned show: Ai Weiwei (the veritable contemporary emperor of the international art world), Jacques Herzog (prize-winning architect and one-third of the team that designed the Olympic stadium in Beijing with Ai Weiwei), Pierre de Meuron (the other prize-winning architect involved in that project), Tom Eccles (co-curator of this exhibit and director of the Bard Center for Curatorial Studies) and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (curator, critic, art historian and bon-vivant). The amount of ego stuffed into this artistic collaboration is enough to explode any existing art world paradigm; however, the various reviews that surfaced after the opening of Hansel & Gretel divulged a cryptic account-the majority of the criticism cited the seemingly extraordinary cost of this tricky high-tech installation and the overly “public entertainment” aspect of the show.

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ai Weiwei Hansel & Gretel, Park Avenue Armory, New York (June 7 – August 6, 2017). Courtesy of Resnicow and Associates, New York.

Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron, Ai Weiwei Hansel & Gretel, Park Avenue Armory, New York (June 7 – August 6, 2017). Courtesy of Resnicow and Associates, New York.

The interactive nature of the exhibit unfolds in specific stages: to enter, visitors shuffle down a dimly lit corridor at the back of the Armory that leads into the large Drill Hall. The completely blackened space hums with human activity and shifting ghostly-looking shapes populate the ground. Then it becomes obvious those motley images are traces of everyone around you, including yourself. It’s a cavern filled with spying drones and infrared cameras that create eerie impressions of the complicit crowd who delight in snapping iPhone photos left and right, presumably to upload to Instagram and Facebook at once. Visitors wander about bemused while creating unique bodily designs on the floor such as infrared-illustrated snow angels and other yogic poses that remain like ghosts of activity. The spectacle was indeed a bit absurd, yet the behavior merely highlights the bizarre nature of reality now-surveillance is happening all around us all the time, and everyone is having a blast in selfie-land despite it.

The second part of the show required visitors to exit the Drill Hall, walk outside and down the block to re-enter the Armory building through the main entrance and into the Head House. There, visitors encountered streaming footage from the Drill Hall and tables with mounted iPads, where people were encouraged to find their faces among the photos taken by the hovering drones. The entire Armory was transformed into a veritable “surveillance laboratory” and thus became a kind of covert monitoring hub fit to expose the extent of a hyper-monitored world. These days, most everyone cooperates with forfeiting their anonymity in exchange for taking part in the sprawling domain of the Internet-especially social media-and Hansel & Gretel tells this story with unequivocal candor.

I ended my visit to this show on the second floor of the Head House in one of the extraordinary baroque rooms reminiscent of a time gone by. That particular space was filled with stunning examples of majestic taxidermy and the lights under the massive antlers of those stoic animals created ominous shadows writ large on the walls above them. The metaphor was uncanny; these days no matter where we go, we gorge on the delights of the virtual sphere while our digital shadow follows us like a traceable trail of analog breadcrumbs, available to anyone who might be devious enough to prey upon it.

(June 7 - August 6, 2017)

Taliesin Thomas is an artist-philosopher, writer and educator based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is the founding director of AW Asia (2007 – present). She has lectured widely on contemporary Chinese art and has published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese ArtJournal of Contemporary Chinese Art (JCCA) and ArtAsiaPacific magazine in addition to regular reviews for ARTPULSE. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in art theory and philosophy at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.

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