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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Can Lantian Xie meet expectations set by his debut show with follow-up ‘Full Special’?

The exhibition takes much influence from Xie's life in Dubai - his home for the past two decades

Full Special by Lantian Xie is an exhibition of superlatives and souvenirs that test the viewer to seek out their hidden messages. Victor Besa / The National
Full Special by Lantian Xie is an exhibition of superlatives and souvenirs that test the viewer to seek out their hidden messages. Victor Besa / The National

The Stone Roses’s Second Coming. Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish nor Flesh. The Strokes’s The Room on Fire (debatably). The sophomore album is when a band fails to live up to the expectations of a bracingly successful debut. Such a phenomenon was on Lantian Xie’s mind as he worked on Full Special, his second show at Grey Noise at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. His previous exhibition at the gallery, three years ago, launched the Dubai artist into a stream of biennial commissions, culminating in his representing the UAE in the Venice Biennale in 2017. He felt the pressure mounting.

To avoid the curse, Xie deliberately took on the metaphor of the sophomore album. He organised Full Special like an LP, with each artwork titled like a music track. It’s not hooks and jingles, though. “It’s a concept album,” he says.

Those who know Xie’s practice won’t be surprised to hear it. Elliptical, complex, rooted in biography or insider Dubai knowledge, his work advances its arguments through Conceptual gestures and found objects. It is, at times, almost wilful in its refusal to easily give up its secrets. Look closer at this show, however, and it offers up its clues in colours and stagecraft.

'It’s water. You’re selling plastic'

Orange-yellow connects an installation of vitamin D-infused water bottles to a painting of monochrome canvas, suggesting the water bottles as bona fide art. The grimacing face of North West – Kanye and Kim Kardashian’s daughter, clad in an opulent fur jacket – stares across the show at some canvasses still in bubble wrap: the spawn of Instagram lording over the vanquished remains of old-school image-making. “Lots of artists make work like the internet doesn’t exist,” says Xie. “Like characters in a movie never mention the movie.”

 ‘1. Welcome’, a screenshot of North West, Kanye and Kim Kardashian’s daughter. Reem Mohammed / The National
 ‘1. Welcome’, a screenshot of North West, Kanye and Kim Kardashian’s daughter. Reem Mohammed / The National

But the fulcrum of the show, is – as often for Xie – Dubai, and the informal, day-to-day encounters that get left out of official history.

“‘Full Special’ is what you say when you pull up to a petrol station,” he explains. “It’s like a call-and-response: ‘Full Special?’ ‘Full Special. There’s a superlativeness about it – there’s only Special and Super. Special is actually just regular.

“It reminded me of the superlativeness in which we live here. Everything is the first, tallest, biggest. It’s easy to be disparaging of that, but I wanted to think seriously about it.”

The installation of squat orange water bottles, for example, are a new vitamin D-infused line recently rolled out in the Emirates called “Al Ain Plus”. For Xie, it epitomises Dubai’s love of the superlative, as well as capitalism’s ability to sell aspirations and emotions alongside goods that consumers actually need.

An installation of vitamin D water bottles. Reem Mohammed / The National
An installation of vitamin D water bottles. Reem Mohammed / The National

“It’s water. You’re selling plastic,” he laughs. “I’m the same. I love Fiji water. But it’s the bottle that you love. The vitamin D-enhanced water is water with a mark-up. And the irony of a vitamin D deficiency in this place of all places – and where the response is: ‘Let’s just sell it back to people’.”

A fascination with an adopted city

Xie tracks down this superlative to see where it comes from and where it leads. 9. Think Fast. Look Alive is a painting of a film poster for Die Hard that Xie spotted in Singapore. “It’s the ultimate superlative!” he says. “How can you die hard? You’re dying!” 7. Top Ten Middle Eastern Art, the installation of bubble-wrapped canvases, mocks both the “top ten” style of clickbait journalism and the moniker “the Middle East”.

“Where is this Middle East, anyway?” he asks. 5. Largest Homes in Dubai is an image of an advertisement for the “largest quad homes” in Dubai, which Xie saw hanging in the airport in New Delhi. Xie took a picture of it and had it painted, making what he quite beautifully calls a “time-­irreverent copy” – a painting of a photo of a rendering of buildings that do not yet exist.

 ‘5. Largest Homes in Dubai’, a painting of a photo of a rendering of buildings. Courtesy Grey Noise
 ‘5. Largest Homes in Dubai’, a painting of a photo of a rendering of buildings. Courtesy Grey Noise

This kind of slippage, where an image precedes a reality, is key to Xie’s fascination with his adopted city. In the same way that his show pretends to be a music album – and not even that, but a concept album – his work plays with the idea of being something other than it is.

The paintings in Full Special are all made by forgers, sign-makers and muralists, and music from a CD player flits through the gallery’s brightly lit space.

Visitors can take a bottle of Al Ain Plus, if they wish. Rather than a display of his technical proficiency, it’s a display of the convergences of images as they travel around the world, all clamouring for attention: from the Singapore movie poster to the New Delhi advertisement to one of the show’s more poignant works, 2. Cuccioli, a lost dog poster that Xie came across in Venice. Full Special might fuel Xie’s car in Dubai, but these images are the souvenirs of the itinerant artist.

Discovering the hidden messages

The test for the viewer of Full Special is how far you’re willing to seek out its hidden messages. The image of North West is an iPhone screenshot, for example, taken in the week of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UAE. The telecoms provider du emblazoned “Welcome Prez China” on its UAE-carrying smartphones as its network name – a greeting in the corner of the image that Xie reads as directed towards the Chinese immigrant community he grew up in (Xie was born in Nanjing, China, and moved to the Gulf when he was two).

When Xi Jinping visited, I remember remarking upon my phone’s apparently autonomous decision to participate in the state celebrations, but it would have taken me a while to connect the screenshot to Xie without his prompting.

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Read more:

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However, for Xie, the desire to document these Dubai moments is not simply to talk about himself, but to tell a story that is in danger of being swept aside by starrier macroeconomic narratives about Dubai’s rapid expansion and liberalising culture. The music playing in the show is from a CD that Xie found in his Nissan Patrol when he bought it second-hand. “There was West Coast rap, some Michael Jackson, some Khaleeji music,” Xie says. “Pretty much what you’d expect from someone who grew up in Dubai in the early 2000s.”

Eclectic, sure, but not a sophomore album.

Full Special is on show at Grey Noise until November 1