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Xavier Cha's Public Privacy

Tim Davis
published in One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now. Asia Society, 2007

There is a great deal of what former Bush spokesman Ari Fliescher, (referring to the Valerie Plame case) called “kerfuffle” in the current art world about collectivity. With the art community feeling like overtired, sugared-out trick-or-treaters coming home from the commercial Gallerias of Chelsea, curators are touting collectivity as a refreshing renewal of the Alternative. The trouble is, most of the work of these collectives fits comfortably in the gallery context, looking a lot like slightly scruffy drawing, painting, sculpture and photography. The mainstream surge of the commercial seems capable of washing away the most willful of marginalized positions.

Xavier Cha is an antidote to this contagious giftshopping of the collective. All her work has added doubt and distraction to our assumed distinctions between individual and collective, public and private. In “Topiary Tags” she incised enormous “XAVIERs” into Los Angeles hedgerows. The hedge is the public face of a private place, and a graffiti tag is the privatization of public space. P.D. James wrote, “There is more violence in an English hedgerow than in the meanest streets of a great city,” and while James was talking about the harshness of nature, Cha’s glamorous vandalism emphasized the scarring violence of exclusivity and the absurdity of a wall made of leaves.

In “Holiday Cruise,” her 2006 show at Taxter and Spengeman Gallery in New York, she created and inhabited three distinct, complex, gaudy, elaborate personae ­Cornucopia, Cornrow Hairbraid, and Polyhedra— and invited performers to share the gallery with her. A spectrum of performances stretched out over the month, from the savvy to the naïve: covens, satyrs, opera singers doing Offenbach, strippers, astrologists, fashion designers, sensitive songwriters. The gallery became a place where every crackpot with an extroverted streak, and societies of varying degrees of secrecy, could hold their coming out parties. Collectivity could have easily broken out. But Cha’s characters stayed willfully outside the collective fray, like Greek caryatids holding up the roof at the Diyonisia. Cornrow moved through the other performers, but remained mute. Cornucopia remained supine in an enormous effulgent horn of plenty. Polyhedra stood undetectably still in an inscrutable high priestess costume that felt fought over by Matthew Barney and Buckminster Fuller. No riots ensued, but eddies curled off the Mainstream into corners of the gallery usually reserved for facelifts and critics. Nothing collective could touch Cha. She was, after all, a work of art.

The artist as audience isn’t a new idea. In recent years Sophie Calle laid in bed all night atop the Eiffel Tower listening to bedtime stories and Marina Abromovic stared out at observers for twelve days in “Ocean View.” But never has a performer achieved such virtuosic nullity. “Holiday Cruise” was like a recital of Morton Feldman’s six-hour long crystalline, minimal Second String Quartet performed at a convention of auctioneers: a devastatingly beautiful, crafted individual essence loosed into a loony bin. For Calle and Abromovic, the life and character of the artist stay giddily present as subject. For Cha, the individual artist is subsumed not into the collective, but into the work itself.