In video and performance artist Julika Rudelius’s exhibition Rituals of Capitalism, there are videos and photographs of young men—flamboyant Chinese youth and emotionless Ivy League students—and then, as you walk through the gallery, there’s two empty pedestals. These pedestals had previously shown two of Rudelius’s works, “unidentified furs” from China, but those works were removed. According to a typewritten note from the gallery, they violated a U.S. law which forbids importing cat and dog furs. It seems there are some things that just don’t translate from east to west.
The problem of translation plays out across the rest of the exhibition: after Rudelius visited China in 2010, she created eroticized portraits of the country’s working-class. It’s the type of show I would normally dread—didn’t we learn from Gaugin a long time ago that it’s icky to eroticize the young people you see on vacation?—but the characters are too beguiling to miss.
In Rituals (2010), the brightly colored street shops dazzle with their cheap flashy wares, and the stores’ gritty workers seem just as ornate. Both the shops and the boys are sexy. The boys wrestle together, sit aloof atop their motorcycles, and stare into the camera, gently touching their hair and face. It looks like Rudelius wanted her video to stray as far away from art as possible without being confused for a twink mag. If this sounds like familiar territory, you’re right: Rineke Dijkstra’s exhibition on view at the Guggenheim also shows plenty of eroticized youth, but without Rudelius’s added mark of sexy commerce.
The gallery’s back room shows Rudelius’s photographs, which focus on the curious fashion statements made by the youth she filmed, namely their fancy hairstyles. Sure, the daily existence of these workers relies on a rough-and-tumble street life while they eke out a bare existence in their shops, but they still have style, and it looks fairly westernized. They get Justin Bieber haircuts, and in turn, we’re not allowed to import their cat and dog pelts. Both are of questionable cultural value, but we still want them anyway, simply feeling better about ourselves when we dress up and have things.
That promise of betterment through capitalism emerges to a less sexualized degree in Rites of Passage (2008). Rudelius blends fact and fiction in this video showing uncomfortable college-age boys in ill-fitting suits and crooked ties talking to older professional men about how to become influential leaders. The script sounds like it could’ve been taken from any number of generic self-help books: the older men tell the younger ones things like “to be a leader, you have to be believeable” and “a charismatic leader leads people from the heart, not the mind.”
As much as the words they speak aim at idealism, and some sort of emotional spirit, they’re just so cliché there’s no way to think this is the type of advice that can change the world. There are a few uncomfortable moments in the video, like when one of the older men, while sizing up his protégé, deeply stares into his eyes while thinking of a response, only to flirtatiously open his mouth to spit out the word, “Perfect.”
This work couldn’t provide a more stark contrast to Rudelius’s over-the-top glamorization of Chinese boys. While there’s something to be cherished in restraint, that doesn’t matter to Rudelius who, of late, appears more interested in testing boundaries by fetishizing Chinese workers and testing customs law. She’s questioning our own assumptions about the States’ Eastern trading partner, and in itself, that’s not a bad thing.