Frequent Flying with Ei Arakawa

Ei Arakawa


installation view at Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, CA


New York-based artist Ei Arakawa opened his latest performance-cum-exhibition at Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, “I Am An Employee of United, Volume 2” [through Oct. 27] with a vision of excess compressed into a YouTube clip. The artist dimmed the lights and hit play on his MacBook Pro, projecting a video of a death metal band performing in a low-ceilinged wooden coop, complete with chickens, spilled blood, heavy guitar riffs, and an appearance by performance artist Bob Flanagan. The video’s booming sound was incongruous with the demure, slightly askew rectangular glow on the wall. Quick cuts of zoom shot after zoom shot of shadowy filth unfurled as the artist, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, before reciting over his microphone headset the number of miles he flew each month over the course of the most recent calendar year, “total: 101,000 miles.”

“United, Volume 2” portrays today’s global artist, who moves from city to city and gallery to gallery to pedal his or her trade. Arakawa’s matter-of-fact account of extreme distances traveled on behalf of performance coupled with the video’s wasteful bloodbath points to an endemic squandering of resources in and out of the art world, offering a picture of collaborative performance more barbed than in his previous ephemeral works since 2005. Concluding his speech by noting that this total number “is typical of a performance artist today,” the artist shut off the projection, signaling to members of his network—including his LA gallerists, Lisa Overduin and Kristina Kite; New York-based artist Nikolas Gambaroff; performer Shimon Minamikawa—to take their places. Nine performers in total, including the artist, broke off into threes, with each group surrounding one of three clothed wooden figures lying limp on wicker chairs. Modeled on Arakawa’s proportions, the figures were enlivened, with two performers hoisting up one dummy from each side, and the other controlling the walking movement of its legs.

The show’s title conflates United Brothers, Arakawa’s collaboration with his brother Tomoo, and United Airlines, equating the artist’s labor, premised on physical circulation, with that of aircraft stewards. With United Brothers, Arakawa has collaborated with a number of artists, including New York-based artist Kerstin Brätsch at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise [through Oct. 27], on performances that have negotiated the disaster of the unrestrained, like the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, where Tomoo Arakawa owns several tanning salons. The search for an alternative to the prodigal seemed also to have inspired Arakawa’s performance group Grand Openings to send directions for a performance to be conducted on its behalf in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2005.

The dummies at Overduin and Kite, under the control of the performers, first moved towards a painted mural spelling out the word “UNTIED” in white letters on a blue background, another wordplay that refers to, the unofficial complaint website of United Airlines. Performed at Galerie Neu, Berlin, in 2010, each letter of UNTIED had separated from the word to become its own individual, wandering plywood monument (Arakawa’s term). Here the word was whole, congealed on the wall as a sign painting, although it also provided an embedded support for several small-scale paintings of Whitney Houston in newsprint and acrylic by Gambaroff. Placed into slots molded into the drywall along the mural, the paintings underscore their own mobility as objects available for preview before the gallery’s next exhibition cycle. Gambaroff will show these and similar works next month [opens Nov. 11].

Dummies in tow, the performers approached and extricated the paintings from the wall, activating the canvases as actors themselves. Set down at the front of the gallery, the canvases were replaced by black rubber suction cups used to move thick, tinted glass panels, which the performers passed between dummies by alternately pressurizing rectos and versos. Handling one panel, Arakawa ambled through the crowd crooning in a falsetto voice, “Fingerprints!” As the artist collected prints on the glass, a narrative began to emerge-the dummy-as-performance artist making its way through airport security.

Accumulating audience residue, the panels were positioned into the gaps left behind by Gambaroff’s paintings, creating windows that transformed the UNTIED sign into the exterior of a commercial jet. The dummies’ three wicker chairs were then manipulated in a series of sequences in front of a large-scale oil-on-silk replica of the Russian artist Leon Bakst’s design for Sergei Diaghilev’s 1910 production of Les Orientales, which served as a backdrop. Underscoring his choreography’s loose theatricality, while affirming its tight parameters by borrowing from the imagery of ballet, Arakawa directed his fellow performers to set the dummies onto their respective seats, and coaxed audience members to stand behind them individually to let down their hair over each bare white head. The gesture suggested an alternative model of performance in which any body may stand in for the artist.

Arakawa narrated, “Using three economy seats, that’s the way for them to sleep full flat while flying economy,” while performers placed the chairs into a row formation in the center of the gallery, laying one dummy down to rest. An air purifier was rolled out from the back room, around which the performers congregated as the artist chirped: “cough!” Emitting hacking noises into the purifier, and spreading germs into the imaginary aircraft’s filtration system, the performers suggest the artist’s movement across the globe as a sort of viral radiation.

The chairs were moved back to their original V-formation while dummies were laid on their stomachs in front of the backdrop. Having secured a horizontal pole of faux Bamboo sticks in beige, fashioned together with plastic ties and placed on high between two columns, the performers began administering massages to these wooden figures as Arakawa read aloud, “We are exhausted. As long as we can get nice shiatsu, it is okay.” Gambaroff’s paintings resumed their places in the scene as the dummies were restored to their original seats. Attaching white elastic lace bands to the dummies’ heads and to the paintings, performers began circulating the canvases, running to and fro from one end of the gallery to the other, burning up energy and periodically intersecting one another in steady rhythms, simulating the art object’s displacement on the market, with its attendant consumption and ultimate redundancy. 

The performance’s final scene had the audience trailing Arakawa, the performers and their dummies into Overduin and Kite’s front space, where the artist had installed three white ceiling fans supporting three additional dressed wooden figures on their undersides, which whirled around as if stuck to the propellers of a plane. Below, Arakawa and his fellow performers directed their dummies in striptease along the repurposed faux Bamboo poles. As the sound of Whitney Houston blasted through the space, offering a danceable tune, Arakawa’s avatars slid up and down their makeshift stripper poles, arriving in the exhibition space in order to seduce, but only for a brief moment. In the performance’s wake were left the six clothed wooden dummies that occupied the gallery like ghosts—three in motion and suspended on the fans, and three seated in chairs—the UNTIED mural facing the Les Orientales backdrop, and four Whitney Houston paintings and four window panels alternating along the UNTIED wall.