In December I attended two art events that captured my imagination, 24 hours at the Lightnin' Hopkins Bus Stop by THE BLACK GUYS, and Planned Obsolesce by Alex Tu. On the surface, they could not be more dissimilar, but underneath they shared some concepts and methods.
(Photo by Robert Pruitt)
24 hours at the Lightnin' Hopkins Bus Stop by THE BLACK GUYS, which consists of Robert Hodge and Phillip Pyle the Second, was held from 10 a.m. December 10th to 10 a.m. December 11th. The event was one from their series THE BLACK GUYS in which Hodge and Pyle recreate and/or appropriate a series of the Art Guys' (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) performances as well as present some original pieces. 24 hours is based on the Art Guys 1995 event entitled Stop-N-Go, where Galbreth and Massing worked as clerks at a convenience store for 24 hours straight.
The duration of the piece was the primary commonality between the Art Guys performance and that of the THE BLACK GUYS. After that, the works diverged. Where as the Art Guys performance may have had some political overtones: protesting the 90s commodification of the art market and drawing attention to the plight of the convenience store clerk, THE BLACK GUYS piece was explicitly political. In publicity about the event, Hodge and Pyle stated that their objective was to temporarily reclaim the Lightning Hopkins bus stop, to which Hodge had contributed a customized bench and large sign when Hopkins was honored by the city of Houston. Since the commemoration, the local drug trade at the 24-hour Gulf station across the street has spilled over to the bus stop. It serves more as an open air market than as public service or a commemorative space. When I spoke with Phillip around midnight, according to his unscientific research, he'd only seen 3 people catch the bus at that site.
Photo by Lovie Olivia
Hodge and Pyle's downplayed the political aspect of the piece. They described their performance as "spending 24 hours" at the Lightning Hopkins bus stop at Dowling and Frances. They made it participatory, inviting fans, art appreciators, friends, and residence of the neighborhood to join them. And come they did. In their video about the event, a constant parade of friends, fans, fellow artists, neighbors, and patrons stream by. People brought food, drinks, music, and even a portable fire pit fueled with recycled cooking oil to keep them warm. Both artist had brought books and videos in case no one showed, but I doubt either had time to open a book or start video.
The power of the TBG's piece was that what appeared to be a 24hr block party on the surface was actually a clandestine demonstration. Hodge and Pyle parlayed their artistic cache into political action and very subtly enlisted their artistic entourage into helping them reclaim the space. From what I observed and heard, it was neither a defensive nor a confrontational act. There were no shouts or accusations between the usual denizens of the stop and the TBG's retinue. Both artists are from Houston and are aware of the complex history and politics of the Third Ward as well as the artistic communities ambivalent relationship to the drug trade. In fact, I doubt if most of the participants realized what their participation was actually accomplishing. It was a positive protest in which Hodge and Pyle created the future they envisioned for this spot and for the Third Ward in general. TBG co-opted the Art Guy's Stop-N-Go performance and turned it into a positive protest by reclaiming the public space and making it one of camaraderie and friendship, which to fully appreciate, you had to be there.
Planned Obsolesce, Alex Tu's show at the Civic TV Collective wasn't a performance per se. It was a standard opening with an after party in situ. If you breezed by, glancing at the work, chatting with many artists and art appreciators that stopped by, snacking on the pigs head and roast duck, grooving to the DJ, and then moving on, you might have missed something, like the art.
Like TBG's piece, Tu's photographs were appropriations of other works of art/images. They are grainy images enlarged to monumental proportion. These images were once important political and cultural symbols. Now they are backdrops, the visual equivalent of elevator music, artistic white noise. The image of Mao has gone from a potent political symbol, to a pop art icon, to the artistic equivalent of a still life assignment: every art student has to add one to his/her oeuvre.
Idol Gazing At Himself Television infomercial for prosperity and fortune generating golden statue, Beijing, 2012
The obelisk's significance has gone soft from over use by purveyors of national pride.
Empty Obelisk Transmitting Light Globally/CCTV, Beijing 2012
The images of lush beaches have grown tired and cancerous, succumbing to the over exposure as a stand in for a purchasable paradise.
Prosperity and Good Fortune in the First World, mural found above meat department at a Chinese American supermarket in Alief, Houston 2012
Further contributing to the work is the site itself. The location of Civic TV Collective is in what was previously Chinatown, but has been recently re-christened as EADO. Like the images in Tu's show, it remains the same geographic location and yet it has been transformed. It's context has changed. The pig's head and roasted duck from one of the last Chinese grocery stores in the area provide sensual remembrance, a taste and smell, of things passed and passing.
The context of old China town and Tu's appropriation and recontextualizing of these ubiquitous images exposes their dubious futures. Do the symbols go on to live in perpetuity in the pop lexicon? Do they pass into oblivion? Are they reborn with a new cogency, a new artistic agency? And Chinatown, what of its future? Does it become a site of urban renewal that retains its current residences and welcomes new ones? Or are the denizens displaced and relocated? Does everything eventually evolve into rebranded EADO whatever that entails?
Planned Obsolesce, the title of Tu's work, begs those questions. I'm not sure how many of the audience struggled to answer them. Tu, himself, was taciturn and thoughtful. Directing people to the food and beer and chatting about any topic but the work. However, as with TBG's performance, if you stuck around for a little while and engaged the work, observed where you were and contemplated why the artist chose that work for that place, you might have discovered that you had unknowingly become part of the performance / piece itself.