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Blunt Society | ART023

Updated: Jun 14

A Solo Art Fair

This is an era of unprecedented prosperity for art fairs. New art fairs emerge one after another. For both young galleries or blue-chip galleries, and important art fairs around the world, play a dominant role in shaping the market's strategic direction and schedule planning every year. In early November, Shanghai Art Week returned as scheduled. At the Blunt Society located in the Xinkang Gardens on Huaihai Middle Road, a brand-new art fair is brewing.

If you happen to come across such a press release amidst the bustling exhibition announcements during Shanghai Art Week, you might be quite curious: a brand-new art fair, "ART023 Shanghai Twenty-Three Contemporary Art Fair," will be launched at the Blunt Society in Shanghai. The fair is founded and curated by artist Ni Youyu, with art critic Liu Huatong serving as the academic committee member. It will showcase nearly 300 new works encompassing different art mediums such as painting, photography, sculpture, and installations. Additionally, breaking the conventional week-long duration of an art fair, it will run for almost three months, from November 8, 2023, to January 21, 2024.


An art fair initiated by an artist? Even borrowing the name "ART021 Shanghai Twenty-One Contemporary Art Fair"? Which galleries will participate? With curiosity in your heart, you come to the Blunt Society—an independent art space founded by Ni Youyu in 2022, located in an old Spanish-style house in Xinkang Gardens on Huaihai Middle Road. As you ascend the stairs specially constructed with wood, you finally realize—it is unexpectedly both surprising and expected that what awaits you is not a conventional art fair as traditionally understood.

On the elevated wooden platform, which brings a sense of theatrical presence, 21 empty "mini" booths are displayed like models in the center of the exhibition hall. Miniature paintings, photographs, sculptures, and installations, each the size of a palm, are scattered on the surrounding walls and display stands. In this "playful imitation" art fair by Ni Youyu—ART023—all the miniature works are actually created by the artist himself, encompassing multiple series from his past practice, as well as well-known "masterpieces."


However, viewers familiar with these masterpieces may easily discern the clues: in these strongly stylized miniature works, the artist has made certain changes to the visual imagery of the original works. He overlays and synthesizes multiple portrait images by Elizabeth Peyton to create a completely new portrait that never existed before. He also makes partial alterations to the details of the original works of Alex Katz and David Hockney. The somber tones in Mark Rothko's paintings take on a bright and sweet quality through color inversion (the artist names this work "Inverse of Melancholy") ...


Meanwhile, the 21 empty booths are waiting to be filled by art collectors. As participants in this "game," 21 collectors (rather than gallery owners) will ultimately have their own curated art fair booths.

Undoubtedly, since the birth of world fairs in the 19th century to their development today, the concept of "fair" with a century-long history has evolved into a grand social event. The development of public spaces has given rise to the order and regulations of contemporary display systems. The rise of the Industrial Revolution has determined the decline of craftsmanship, and the era of social media has led to the dominance of the philosophy of traffic. In the contemporary art market, where the minuscule art style is dwindling (or even absent), what kind of narrative does this playful imitation of "traditional art fairs, art display, and social rules of the art market" tell?


The Collector's "Box": Another Form of Public Logic


In 1934, Marcel Duchamp conducted a retrospective of his own work and came up with the idea of using a box to "gather all his works together, like a miniature mobile museum." Between the 1930s and 1960s, he created a series of "boxes in a suitcase" (Boîte-en-Valise). Inside these paper boxes embedded in a portable leather suitcase, Duchamp designed layered structures so that when opened, miniature "exhibition walls" would appear, displaying scaled-down replica versions of the artist's past works.

Although Marcel Duchamp never explicitly revealed his creative motivation, the concept of the "portable box" greatly inspired Ni Youyu. The artist broke free from his traditional role and, at the same time, became his own curator. As art historian T. J. Demos mentioned in his essay, Duchamp's Boîte-en-Valise: Institutional Culture and Geopolitical Substitution, this is similar to the role of museums, not only serving as platforms for art education and knowledge dissemination but also embodying the curator's skills and planning abilities.1


We can then further understand these 21 complete booths in ART023—they seem to offer 21 "Duchamp’s portable boxes". However, the difference lies in the fact that the curatorial authority is transferred to the hands of the collectors. "This logic is similar to an art fair—gallery owners are the developers of business strategies, devising different strategies and presenting works by different artists based on the art market trends each year and different types of art fairs. This 'game' also seems to simulate this planning strategy."

In fact, in his previous works, Ni Youyu has already created his own "portable boxes." For example, in his 2022 installation, De Stijl, he placed a miniature model of Gerrit Rietveld's Red Blue Chair and an easel inside a wooden box filled with classic elements of the style of the master of the De Stijl movement, Piet Mondrian. However, compared to the completeness of these installations, ART023 leaves the organization of the content to the collectors themselves, allowing them to choose and find connections among the works, becoming the "curators" of their own "booths" within an open framework.

Certainly, in this fictional art fair, the social rules between exhibitors and buyers are subverted and reshaped, but this imitation is not a sudden whim.

Let's go back to 2020—the outbreak of the pandemic led to the temporary closure of the TEFAF Maastricht fair in the Netherlands in early March, followed by the announcement that the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel, celebrating its 50th anniversary, would be canceled as a physical event and moved online. This unexpected event disrupted nearly half a century of offline traditions, forcing people to adapt quickly to working and living online and in the cloud.

The importance of art fairs in the art market is unquestionable. "Yet, suddenly, the pandemic interrupted everything. Things that had long been solidified could be so easily destroyed and shattered." This sparked Ni Youyu's reflection: if they can be easily shattered, does it also mean that, from a certain logic, this solidified form can be questioned and even shaken in the future? Will this online virtual exhibition format also become a new norm in the future?

In 2020, Ni Youyu created a painting titled, White Art Fair. In the painting, a fictional white art fair booth displays imitations of works by Lucio Fontana, Cy Twombly, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, and others. They were all, without exception, based on a white background. Perhaps out of a certain commemoration of past traditions or abstract thinking entering concrete reality, White Art Fair seems to have laid the foundation for future creations—the idea of creating a real, physical "fictional art fair" gradually took shape in Ni Youyu's mind the following year.

The creation of ART023 officially began in 2021. During this period, it coincided with the preparation of the artist's solo exhibition "Dome and Scale," resulting in the project being temporarily put on hold, again. "It might be more interesting to compare it to my solo exhibition at the He Art Museum," says Ni Youyu. "Dome and Scale" showcases over 200 artworks, almost encompassing the entirety of his creative career. Similarly, ART023, contained within the Blunt Society space, also brings together various series from his past works. "When the decoy press release appeared, people might have expected another large-scale exhibition like 'Dome and Scale'."

However, for the viewers, the psychological disparity caused by the spatial dimensions is both unexpected and inherently rational. In this setting filled with a sense of theatricality and performance, disappointment, surprise, doubt, and discomfort intertwine, creating a complex mix of feelings.

For Ni Youyu, an artist who grew up in Shanghai, the annual Shanghai Art Week in November is both lively and dull, with increasingly homogeneous content and the quick sale excitement brought by the golden trading slots, year after year. "As a participant and observer of the art fair every year, this year, through this imitation, I want to bring some interesting memories to November."

In his perspective, "art should not have only one public logic." However, he remains silent about his own viewpoint, hoping to inspire new ways of viewing and break the existing viewing habits. "When imitating something, even without explicitly expressing an attitude, an attitude is inherently present."


Miniscule Objects: Between Reality and Illusion

It is undeniable that art pieces in public spaces are relying on their "size and scale" to grab attention, which seems to be becoming a trend. In contrast to the public nature associated with "large objects," "minuscule objects" correspond to privacy. The specifications and dimensions of minuscule objects determine that they are inevitably "difficult to offer a comfortable sensory experience under the scrutiny of the public eye." As mentioned by Liu Huatong, a member of the ART023 academic committee, in his article, The Social Rules of Aesthetic Objects, the emergence of public spaces, the assurance of industrial manufacturing, and contemporary aesthetic trends reflect three internal factors for the fading presence of handcrafted minuscule objects from people's view: the decline of personal privacy, the downturn of craftsmanship, and the discouragement from the fields of communication and marketing studies.

In ART023, the minuscule objects that are as complete and detailed as the original works require a significant investment of time in their creation. To maintain the most optimal level of sensitivity during the creative process, Ni Youyu does not rely on magnifying glasses but rather controls his breathing and the strength of his hands, challenging this high-intensity manual state with his naked eyes. Although the investment of time may not seem proportionate to the output volume, intense manual labor has always been one of the core elements of Ni Youyu's artistic practice.

In fact, Ni Youyu's creation of minuscule objects can be traced back fifteen years ago to the "Galaxy Project" he started in 2008. The outbreak of the financial crisis led him, a recent art school graduate, to question the relationship between contemporary art and capital. In the "Galaxy Project," he flattened coins and created miniature paintings on them. The functional and added value of the flattened coins as currency were dissolved, returning them to their material attributes as metal pieces. With the emergence of the paintings, their added value as artworks gradually became evident. This entire process became a transformation and cycle of value.

"In a sense, the 'Galaxy Project' is the source for this (minuscule object creation) in terms of the technical foundation," Ni Youyu recalled. Since then, the creation of minuscule works has continued intermittently, like an umbilical cord, connecting diverse concepts and subjects.

Regarding the subject matter, as exemplified by the previously mentioned White Art Fair and De Stijl - Ni Youyu's passion for depicting fictional spaces provides another layer of reference for the creation of ART023. Whether it is the large-scale water-washed painting, The Last Sunset in the Museum, created in 2019 or the series of paintings "Artist's Bedroom" and "Ancient Bedroom" created in the past two years - the former adapted the "Natural History" cabinet of curiosity of the 16th-century Italian artist Ferrante Imperato with a "time-space dislocation," while the latter "Bedroom" series, on the one hand, appropriates the subject images of bedrooms from art history classics, altering the composition and details, and on the other hand, combines the diagonal trajectory of the frame to deliberately create a "deceptive" depth on the canvas, attempting to bridge the insurmountable chasm between the real world and the world of images.

In these fictional spaces, tiny "pictures within pictures" are everywhere, and in this minuscule object art fair, these "pictures within pictures" have stepped out of the frames and become reality. At the same time, the sensory discrepancy created by the combination of social media images and the physical space scale in this project seems to echo the spatial rules constructed by the artist in his paintings - the conflict and collusion between the materiality of the frame and the two-dimensionality of the plane. They also navigate between reality and illusion, challenging the mechanism of traditional viewing behavior and visually subverting vision.

Ni Youyu enjoys constructing this "visual game" between reality and illusion. Just like the work, Peng Lai, created in 2013, on a huge blue canvas, three islands the size of coins are painted. From a distance, the canvas seems empty, and the viewer can only gradually discover the mysteries by approaching it and then using a magnifying glass to see the image collages and brushstrokes within the island imagery — he compares it to the experience of viewing "Google Maps." In a series of works titled with "measurements," the "Inches of Time" series (2012-2013) features an old wooden ruler covered with artistically created scales, while Three Steps Ruler (2014) delves into the playful interplay of visual distance and real scale. Within these seemingly absurd game logics, there is also a philosophical contemplation.

In the artist's perspective, "size" is originally a construct of human society. Returning to the exhibition, compared to the viewing methods relying on physical spaces and on-site experiences in the previous digital era, the visual dimension of things and people's viewing habits are now dictated by the small screens. On the one hand, in the virtual space, the size of things is blurred and even dissolved. On the other hand, "seeing images first and encountering the physical object later" has become a common viewing practice for many people.

"Often, when people become accustomed to virtual images, they may not readily accept the reality behind them," Ni Youyu remarks. “This project serves both to leverage and to counter social media. The leveraging aspect lies in the deceptive nature of social media and its inherent size format, which provides support and reference for my work. The counter aspect is that, without actually entering the Blunt Society space to view the originals, no one can truly appreciate the characteristics of these minuscule objects. When these works are photographed and re-enter the realm of social media, they lose their original size characteristics once again.”

Meanwhile, the spatial dimensions of the minuscule objects at the exhibition pose a challenge for viewers wanting to take photos with them. Even smartphone cameras struggle to capture the minuscule objects and their details clearly, making this counter-social media experience somewhat like a subtly “mischievous” game.

1. T.J. Demos, “Duchamp’s La Boîte-en-valise: Between Institutional Acculturation and Geopolitical Displacement,” Grey Room no. 8 (Summer 2002), 6-38.

by Xia Han


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