Rainer Ganahl: ‘El Mundo’ at Kai Matsumiya

Originally published on Purple.com/Diary


El Mundo

Ambition has many facades. That is the takeaway I got from visiting Rainer Ganahl’s current show at the newly opened gallery, Kai Matsumiya in the Lower East Side. For galleries, ambition tends to exist in the polar realms. On one end are the pristine white-cubes, cathedrals of art and commerce. On the other, the detritus filled hideaways whose entrances have no or insufficient signage. The beautiful thing about seeing art in the city of New York is that both poles are represented and usually within walking distance. Appearances aside, both types of galleries can operate with similar levels of ambition, creativity and (in)accessibility. If white cubes are considered unwelcoming or intimidating, it can be just as difficult to find the hole-in-the-wall spaces that operate on the fringe.

Kai Matsumiya, named after the zealous young man who opened the space just a month ago, is located at 153 1/2 Stanton St. (Warning: an apartment building resides at 153 1/2, the gallery is located just to the left). Kai Matsumiya is one of these decidedly unprestine spaces to which I am referring above. The inaugural show with Ganahl, the Austrian born artist - critic of the cultural economy and genuine embodiment of alternative wealth – is a fitting first exhibition for a gallery that is clearly doing everything a gallery should not, and in the best possible way.

El Mundo, which opened April 19th, is a multi-media installation consisting of video, photography and thoughtfully positioned debris (laymen’s terms for installation objects) relating to Ganahl’s 2013 musical concert and performance at the El Mundo discount store in East Harlem. Erected in 1914 as the Eagle Theater, the space served as a theater for early motion picture screenings. In 1981 it became a meat market called Hungry Jack’s and in 1997 it was turned into the consumer wasteland captured in Ganahl’s video. El Mundo has since foreclosed and the space remains abandon.

The 55 minute video includes performances by an opera singer and several former Juilliard students who together create a classical music concert among the mountains of discount clothing, furniture and junk left to rot at El Mundo. A small crowd of viewers are present, scattered between the various isles labeled with hanging signs that read ‘Linen Department’, ‘Furniture Department’ et cetera. The camera movies shakily through the isles, over people’s heads and heaps of clothing, occasionally falling to rest on a single onlooker just long enough for their reaction to be recorded into the performance. Projected in the first gallery space, the video is dramatically distorted on one wall and obstructed partially by a door frame on the other. It’s a wonderfully janky set-up which nicely parallels the essence of the El Mundo experience; raw but poignant — an orchestrated state of disarray.

A series of photographs taken by Ganahl throughout the performance hang in the back gallery. Pinned to the wall with blue push pins, (and in the case of one, mounted next to an original Wu-Tang Mathematics tag), Ganahl’s photographs are among the strongest elements of the show. There is a conscious narrative palpable in their subject matter and framing; a kind of focus that the video lacks given the nature of the medium.

Finally, in the back most corner of the gallery is a Crosley record player set up with a recording of the concert on vinyl. It sits atop a non-functioning toilet — a ceramic pedestal R. Mutt would have appreciated.

El Mundo is wonderfully rich in ideas and penniless in presentation. How fitting for Mr. Ganahl, an artist whose work balances between those two words with more humor, genuine and poignancy than any I know.

And so, it was in the back beside the toilet, to the left of a stack of papers, to the right of Mathematics’s tag, that I began to smile thinking about the incredible flexibility of the word ‘gallery’. Ambition is the necessary ingredient, as for everything else, who knows.