During a televised interview with the British journalist David Frost in 1968, John Lennon told the story about how he first met his second wife, Yoko Ono. Lennon was visiting the Indica gallery, an art gallery run by John Dunbar, the husband of singer Marianne Faithfull, which was showing Ono’s avant-garde exhibit Unfinished Paintings and Objects in 1966, and he fell under the spell of the artist after viewing one of her pieces. In the Frost interview, Lennon explains that, at the time, he was a bit of a snob about art galleries because of his art school background, and he was ready to be unimpressed by Ono’s work. He mentioned an apple on a stand that was marked 200 quid, and he thought to himself that he got the joke, didn’t need to really grasp avant-garde to get that, and moved on through the exhibit. It was when he climbed a ladder to lift a black cloth and peer at the tiny letters written underneath through a magnifying glass that his heart was captured. The word yes was written underneath, and Lennon said that was what did it for him; “it could have been “no”, or “f&%k you” or something, but it was so positive, and I was very impressed.” The rest is part of the folklore of the Beatles history, but what is significant is that Lennon met his match in Ono, an artist with an intellect and creative drive to match his own. Not to draw too close a parallel to Ono, but at the moment there is an artist presenting a show in midtown this month that is sort of the spiritual offspring of that long ago event in London.
Ceci Mengyin Wang is a recent graduate from Pratt Institute whose current show, The Store, is on view for the rest of April at a pop-up location on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 47th Street, that is attracting a huge number of visitors who are participating in her “Art as Audience” interactive art show. Wang’s show opened on April 4th, with the first part of a six piece event entitled Happy Boxes, in which visitors were asked to place their hands into the opening of boxes situated in the gallery without knowing what exactly their touch would encounter. Wang records the reactions of her audience on video camera, which is then projected on a screen placed in the window of the gallery for passers-by on the street. The second part, Hug Me or Punch Me, featured a life sized teddy bear sitting on a chair in the middle of the gallery that visitors were encouraged to interact with accordingly. Wang has posted snippets of those interactions on her Instagram account and the results are nothing less than hilarious, enlightening, shocking and touching. Children, men, and women of every age have participated, and the videos are encapsulations of self revelation that may or may not be intentional.
The current piece, Kick Babies, verges on controversy, inviting visitors into the space to relate to a group of infant-like dolls arranged on the floor of the gallery near the command to kick them in blue letters. At first glance, this may seem heartless and cruel, but a different perspective reveals the deeper motivation of the artist. In an interview conducted next door at the Roger Smith Hotel, which runs the event space housing Wang’s exhibit, the artist discussed what she sees as the importance of understanding how human beings are being conditioned for violence by our culture. “All around us we are bombarded with images of terrorism, and the command to kill others, and my work is a statement about the relationship between violence and cognition. A lot of people have come into the gallery to kick the babies, and I don’t find this surprising at all” Wang states. She goes on to say “When you participate you become the art, and for me that is unique as the roles are reversed, and now I am the observer.” Wang relates the ratio of men to women who kick the dolls, and says that the men far outweigh the women, but women do participate as well. “The show is in midtown and many of the people who come in are relieving stress from work.” She says that the weekends draw a different response as many of the visitors are tourists and the vibe in the city is slightly more relaxed.
In a horrifying twist of life imitating art, Wang has been following the case of the brutal daytime murder of a four year old toddler in Taiwan on March 28th in a random street attack. The child was beheaded by a stranger with a history of mental illness as she rode her tricycle with her mother on a busy street. The mother attempted to pull the man off her daughter but was unable to do so as the man wielded a heavy cleaver. A mob stormed the police station after the suspect was apprehended and taken into custody. Commenting on the case, Wang says “We have to admit and face the weakness and foibles in our human nature instead of escaping from them”. Wang says it is only by facing our shortcomings that we will come to understand them, and thereby know ourselves, and be able to change and grow. The Kick Babies idea came about because Wang has a deep love of children, and has been following news reports of the abuse and deaths of children for a while from all over the world.
Wang’s upcoming installations for the remainder of the show are Future Pharmacy and Label Store, culminating on the last day with Free Gift Box, where visitors will be given a box with unknown content. For Label Store, visitors can purchase designer labels for one and two dollars; a comment on our societal obsession with high end goods and the need to establish self worth through association with status symbols. It is worth keeping in mind that the artist Jean Michel Basquiat, whose 1982 work, Untitled, is set to auction at Christies for over $40 million, once gave out postcards to friends of his early sketches, and those pieces have fetched top fees when sold to collectors. For those unable to stop by the pop up gallery where Wang’s show is on until the 30th, and want an idea about how people interact with her work, check out her Instagram feed here: https://www.instagram.com/ceci_mengyin_wang/.
The space where Wang is holding her current exhibition is the brainchild of John Knowles, Melissa Gonzalez, and Aleks Degtyarev and is known as THE MARKET at RS Hotel. Founded in 2009, THE MARKET at the Roger Smith Hotel is a pop-up retail and branding program based out of the Roger Smith, providing opportunities of space, marketing and networking. THE MARKET currently consists of 5 street-level spaces designed as revolving pop-ups, creating opportunities to brand and operate business in the space, and have a presence in midtown Manhattan. The 5 spaces can hold events as well as retail pop-ups featuring fashion, jewelry and other designers, as well as performance space. In 2007, under a different name, The LAB, the hotel attracted a controversy when the planned display of the artist Cosimo Cavallaro’s Chocolate Jesus, a life-sized figure depicting a crucified figure made of milk chocolate during the Catholic Holy Week, was decried by Catholics and Cardinal Edward Egan. The hotel’s owner responded to the angry outcry by canceling the show, and the curator at the time, Matt Semler, resigned in protest. The Roger Smith Hotel is a unique family-run boutique hotel that stands out from the other hotels on Lexington Avenue for its sculptures and artwork on the facade and at the entrance. The work is created by the hotel’s president, James Knowles. The effect is similar to that of a Gaudi building in Barcelona, Spain. A rooftop bar named for the hotel’s resident pooch, Henry, Bar Henry, offers an oasis of calm amidst the towering skyscrapers and art deco architecture of the Chrysler Building and the General Electric Building.
The Market at The Roger Smith Hotel
Address: 501 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10017