Art imitating life: how this year's Armory Show got political

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Art fairs are typically a conservative affair. Buttoned-up gallerists with business cards hawk their most sellable wares. But with the political upheaval in the world, a pretty picture to hang above a couch in a condo is the last thing on many people’s minds. This year’s edition of New York’s Armory Show – like the city’s other art fairs – is fueled by politics, from a karaoke singalong with a Kim Jong-un impersonator to paintings of Harvey Weinstein.

As the Armory Show’s director, Nicole Berry, says: “We’re committed to showing critical artwork in a changing cultural climate,” but that’s not where it ends. The work on view here taps into the recent flurry of gun control to sexual harassment suits, presidential portraits and fake news.

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Russia-backed Facebook posts reached 126 million Americans during the US election, which are the starting point for a new series by the Dutch artist Constant Dullaart. Hundreds of sim cards are meant to symbolize online armies of fake followers – which are verified through fake Facebook profiles. “Sim cards are a byproduct of companies offering phone-verified accounts to create multiple user accounts, acting as passports to new identities,” says the artist. “Waging a war against Facebook through mass media, sim cards are the remnants of an online army of soldiers.”

It’s no doubt that the White House has been a site of entertainment over the past year, and it’s not just because of Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of former press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Macon Reed’s full-sized replica of the White House press briefing room at the Spring/Break art fair wasn’t just for display, but activism. A Pressing Conference was active all weekend with public lectures held by grassroots speakers such as Rebecca Kelly Golfman, who spoke about marginalized groups in theater, and Mackenzie Reynolds, who gave a talk about resistance politics in Judaism. “I wanted to include voices of people who have been impacted by the choices under the current administration and people responding to it,” said the artist. “I want to express solidarity here.”

This faux press briefing room has chairs, each of which are labeled with the names of journalists who have been persecuted or killed, like Ján Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist who was murdered on 25 February. “Trump is constantly attacking the press. It’s a slippery slope,” said Reed. “There is a lot of satire before authoritarian regimes take hold. It’s hard to imagine these things are on their way.”

Over at the Independent Art Fair, Los Angeles artist Christine Wang showed paintings of Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK, two figures who have been accused of sexual assault and harassment by several women over the past year. Wang didn’t just paint the men, she added a slogan over their faces: “I wish I was a white man.” It had many people who were visiting the fair questioning her motives. “I was following the news and was shocked how long these men got away with what they did,” said Wang. “It’s not that I want to be a white man, I want to be a human being; they had a choice to do something bad, but many people aren’t given that choice of privilege.”

If any artist calls out Trump media bias, it’s Brooklyn artist Cynthia Daignault, who shows a series of 15 portraits of the president from American newspaper front pages, which are also on view at Independent. A painterly cover of the Los Angeles Times reads “Stunning Trump Win” while the Boston Globe front page proclaims “A Trump Shocker” with the president holding a thumbs up. Daignault points out the political divide, as some papers glorified Trump’s triumph, while others downplayed the victory. “The role of Trump, sensational news and the media plays on reporting on truth proves that newspapers may be a truth industry, but it’s also a business at the same time,” she says.

Should the president be impeached? Cary Leibowitz plays with the idea of it in a hand-drawn pie chart, which is imprinted on a ceramic bowl along with the handwritten phrase “Impeachment proceedings”, listing off a number of comical options, from jokes to fried chicken. “I don’t watch TV shows any more, but the black cloud filling up in my head is waiting for impeachment hearings to be announced,” said Leibowitz. “I need to believe in the future, but at the moment, the trial seems like it will never happen.”

The recent Florida school shooting has prompted conversations around gun control. At the Scope Art Fair, the British artist Johan Andersson shows a selection of forlorn-looking children in a series called Toy Guns, where they each hold rainbow-hued toy weapons. “How many more people have to die before something changes?” asks Andersson. “Kids deserve to study in school without the glorification of guns.”

What about the police use of guns? At the New Art Dealers Alliance (Nada) New York art fair, Alexandra Bell shows a piece called A Teenager With Promise. The artist edited a front page of the New York Times from 2014, which paints Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager killed by Ferguson police in 2014, as “no angel”. The Times headline read “ A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise ”, but Bell edits the cover to read “A Teenager With Promise”. Bell’s piece was initially a work of street art in New York, which led to an op-ed apology from the Times’ public editor, but here, they’re presented in framed form.

While much of the art deals with Trump’s policies, some look elsewhere for inspiration. Iranian-American artist Sheida Soleimani, for example, produced a series of photos about the oil industry called Medium of Exchange, also on view at Nada. The artist has created portraits of the politicians who are part of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, except they’re put in explicit, satirical photo-ops. One piece shows Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s oil minister, sexually dominating the former United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, while another features the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld clowning around with former vice-president Dick Cheney. The most memorable one is of Henry Kissinger proposing to Angola’s oil minister, José Maria Botelho de Vasconcelos. “What bugs me about political art right now is that we’re focusing so much on Trump and not enough on the things that happened before, which made our current situation possible,” said Soleimani. “What about human rights violations? The west isn’t paying attention, we are being complicit. By using satire, I’m hoping to get people to tune in.”

With potential talks between the US and North Korea in prospect, Brooklyn-based Korean-American artist Seung-Min Lee staged a karaoke performance dressed as dictator Kim Jong-un and singing for “karaoke diplomacy”. The artist, who dressed up in military regalia, black-rimmed glasses and Kim’s trademark paunch, explains that the DPRK’s ideals are met “through the magic of song”. And apparently, sarcasm: she stood before a phallic-shaped missile while singing a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA but as “Born in the DPRK”. With North Korea’s recent splash at the Olympics, maybe it isn’t so far-fetched, after all.

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