This past Sunday, a group of protesters, including representatives from the activist collectives Chinatown Art Brigade and Decolonize This Place as well as Chinatown residents, occupied the James Cohan Gallery’s space in the neighborhood. They brought with them signs that labeled the work “racist” and urged the gallery to shut down the exhibition. “It’s on them to figure out how to respond appropriately to the Chinatown community that is deeply offended by their racist show,” Chinatown Art Brigade told ARTnews earlier this week.
The installation at the center of the debate resembles what a release calls a “waiting room,” complete with shoddy tiling, dents, graffiti, and Chinese menus. A glass display with phone cases replaces an assistants’ desk, and the facade of the gallery has been covered in cement. Visitors can sit on cheap folding chairs to watch Fast’s 2008 video Looking Pretty for God (After G.W.) on a flatscreen monitor. (A hallway connected to the “waiting room” leads visitors to a space where Fast’s 2016 3-D video August is being screened.) But the installation does not resemble the market that was previously on the ground floor of 291 Grand Street before James Cohan Gallery opened its doors there.
In a statement earlier this week, the gallery stood by the installation, noting that it “support[ed] our artist’s right to free expression and oppose censorship.” Now the gallery has added, “Omer Fast’s work provides an intentionally-uncomfortable look inward—both at himself, an immigrant to the US, and at the Gallery, a new arrival to an established neighborhood. That this work would generate such a variety of strong reactions—positive and negative, reinforces the paradox it is trying to capture. We not only take these expressions seriously, we’ve tried to honor them. People are free to draw their own conclusions about art, but they should also be given the opportunity to do so—without censorship, barriers or intimidation.”
An extended statement from Fast followed the gallery’s comment. He notes that the work is, in his view, about the immigrant experience, and that he is surprised by the reaction to the installation. The posters protesters taped to the installation will remain on view, he says; the show and the installation will still be open through October 29, according to James Cohan Gallery’s website. Fast’s statement follows in full below.
As part of my first exhibition at James Cohan’s Chinatown gallery, I decided to transform the facade and interior in a symbolic and temporary act of erasure. I wanted to erase the passage of time and to recreate what the space looked like before the gallery moved in almost two years ago. The tall glass facade and white-cube interior would disappear and the space would lose its more recent identity as an upscale gallery. The back spaces, where the gallery’s business takes place, were left untouched. No one working there was asked to perform or do anything different. As such, there was nothing radically transformative about this intervention since it was neither disruptive nor permanent. I’m aware how superficial such a formal transformation might seem, but I was precisely interested in this conflict between appearance and essence.
As a teenage immigrant to the United States and a naturalized American, I’ve long felt the tension between appearance and essence. I know many first- and second-generation immigrants experience the same challenge: how to reconcile a foreign identity with a local one, how to connect old and new, outward facade and inner space. In the case of the intervention at James Cohan, the actual gallery is being used as an immigrant surrogate: a transplant that tries to affect an appearance and blend in, even while its essence is undeniably foreign. I suspect many of the critical reactions to my work have a lot to do with this tension between appearance and essence.
I’m not surprised there have been critical reactions. I completely understand people’s need to push back. We all have unseemly baggage, racist and otherwise, that needs to be sorted through. We all overstep bounds and must shine a light on our darker hypocrisies, myself included. For good and for bad, artists do this in public. But I am surprised and distressed by the vitriol and name-calling. A group of protestors hanged a large poster outside the show, which accuses the gallery of representing “a non-US and non-New York artist.” I expect this sort of characterization from right-wing trolls carrying tiki-torches and howling for walls to be built. I don’t expect it from left-wing activists in lower Manhattan.
This doesn’t mean that displacement and gentrification are not happening, nor that artists and galleries do not contribute to these processes, nor that I’m somehow magically free from prejudiced thinking and above all that. I’m truly sorry that some persons find the installation insensitive or offensive. The point of this work was never to insult or incite but to talk about identity and immigrant experience – my immigrant experience – warts and all, in its complexity and in its contradictions, pitting essence against appearance. For what it’s worth, I think this is what this work does. I’ve asked the gallery not to take down the protesters’ posters. I disagree with their statements about me and my work but I think they’re important to consider as part of a larger picture.