Asian Dope Boys premiere highlights FRONT International preview days, opening weekend
CLEVELAND, Ohio – It was a throbbing, screeching, hellish, beautiful and borderline risqué performance by nude or partially nude dancers smeared with body paint who pantomimed sexual acts, cavorted with a butchered lamb and splashed onlookers from a tub of water.
The U.S. premiere of the Beijing-based performance collective Asian Dope Boys served as a fittingly edgy and globally-minded centerpiece Friday night for the private gala fundraiser at Public Auditorium for the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.
Some 600 VIPs attended the private event, part of the preview and kickoff weekend for the summer-long region-wide exhibition, a nonprofit project founded and led by Cleveland collector and philanthropist Fred Bidwell.
“What an amazing thing, the last 24 hours have been so amazing,” said Bellamy Printz, an artist and a curator at the Cleveland Clinic, which is participating in FRONT.
“It’s incredible. It’s exceeding my expectations. I’m thrilled,” said Cleveland artist and FRONT contributor Lauren Yeager, who attended the gala and whose sculptures are on view at Vista Warehouse A, 2048 Fulton Rd., Cleveland, as part of FRONT.
Hundreds of visiting artists, dealers, curators, collectors and arts journalists circulated across Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin Thursday and Friday during the preview days for FRONT, which officially opened Saturday at more than two-dozen museums, nonprofit galleries, public and private institutions and public spaces around the region.
Festivities also included a free opening night street party on Euclid Avenue at Mayfield Road in Uptown, featuring Jupiter & Okwess, a band from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Initial responses to FRONT’s exhibits and events were positive, although some observers said it will be months before the exhibit’s economic impact and effect on perceptions of the region can be evaluated.
“Part of it is just numbers,” David Abbott, executive director of the Gund Foundation, said at Friday’s gala. “How many attended? How many from out of town, but also, what kind of buzz did it generate?”
Bidwell floated the idea for FRONT several years ago, reasoning that Northeast Ohio should host a coordinated international exhibition to show off visual arts institutions refreshed by nearly $500 million in recent expansions and renovations.
Organized around the theme “An American City,” FRONT encourages viewers to visit traditional art venues, but also to explore neighborhoods ranging from sparkling areas of revival to communities fighting poverty and segregation.
Full details about the exhibit and related events can be found at frontart.org.
Abbott said the Gund Foundation was among the earliest supporters of FRONT because “Fred had a great vision. It’s the kind of idea we need more of: Creative innovation that takes us to a new place.”
Julian Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO, said Friday while visiting the Akron Art Museum that he came to learn lessons for Open Spaces, a new, two-month biennial for outdoor art by 40-plus global and regional artists that will debut in his city August 25.
“I’m impressed by the ambition and the reach,” Zugazagoitia said of FRONT, which requires visitors to crisscross Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin. He said FRONT raises question about how Open Spaces in Kansas City can “showcase our city is more of a region.”
Bill Gautreaux, a collector and trustee of the Nelson-Atkins and Kemper Museum of Art said he was struck by the quality of artwork he discovered through FRONT
“There are a lot of artists in this triennial I’ve never heard of, and I see a lot of art all the time,” he said.
Ellen Rudolph, chief curator at the Akron museum, said follow-through in years ahead would be essential to FRONT’s long-term positive impact.
“If it succeeds in putting Northeast Ohio on the map in terms of being an important player on the international art stage, then it’s a great success,” she said. “It’s all of our job to sustain that energy and attention on the region.”
The Asian Dope boys premiere almost didn’t happen because the U.S. embassy in Shanghai balked at granting a visa to Tianzhuo Chen, the ensemble’s leader, over concerns about the artistic content of his work, Bidwell said last week.
The performance reminded some onlookers of the complex, erotic, minutely choreographed Cremaster film epics by contemporary artist Matthew Barney, whose work explores androgyny and gender boundaries.
The half-dozen performers on stage personified a variety of sexual identities in movements that ranged from meditative to ecstatic and orgiastic to demonic and possessed.
Marjorie Williams, senior director of endowment development at the Cleveland Museum of Art, said she saw a performer using mudras, the ritual and symbolic hand gestures of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Cleveland and Akron art dealer Meg Harris Stanton said the performance reminded her of Dante’s depictions of hell in his “Divine Comedy.”
Liz Maugans, a Cleveland artist and art consultant, said, “it’s like Matthew Barney meets Cirque du Soleil.”
At the conclusion of the 75-minute performance, Bidwell, wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie, ascended a catwalk and embraced Chen, stepping carefully on a shiny black surface made slippery with sweat, water and smeared body paint.
After stepping back from the stage, he acknowledged the loud applause all around him as he held a single yellow rose under his chin and smiled.