"Work of Art" Recap: Ai Weiwei, Black Power, and the "Complicitcy" of the New York Times

"Work of Art" Recap: Ai Weiwei, Black Power, and the "Complicitcy" of the New York Times

As “Work of Art,” progressed to its fifth episode, Bayeté, a contestant with which we've developed a love/hate relationship, presents us with a very interesting question: “Is it so bad it's good?” Out of context it sounds like he’s contemplating why we keep watching this goofy chimera of contest-based contemporary art reality TV, but in this instance, he’s talking about art itself. “The interesting thing about art is that sometimes the wackness of it can make people really intrigued.” He knows a thing or two about wackness, oscillating from the winner's platform to the loser's circle from episode to episode, like a sine graph gone wild (not to be confused with the more popular TV-order DVDs of similar title).  

On last night's episode, Bayeté and the other contestants were whisked away to the wonderful land of Queens, a lesser-known borough where the New York Times prints its papers and the Korean food is actually better than it is in Korea Town. The challenge: “Ripped From the Headlines,” where the artists are to take a headline from an old broadsheet and turn it into a work of art, incorporating the physical paper into the piece. “Uh oh!” says Kymia, who apparently never picks up the newspaper, and as a result has developed an unnatural fear of politics and an allergy to topical art and news in general. But Bayete’s sure he’s got this down. After all, he was a photojournalist, back in the days before he realized his true favorite subject was, naturally, himself.  


This time, the stakes have changed for the contestants. Instead of immunity, the winner is to receive $20,000 (an exchange we’d gladly take), a sum so great to these starving artists they can’t comprehend its actually worth. “Watch someone be like, ‘I feel like a millionaire!’” Young Sun muses. Michelle, who’s clearly never taken a trip to the yacht store, says she’d use the money to buy a yacht. “A really cheap yacht,” she corrects herself, from Sarah K’s imagined discount yacht emporium. Adam McEwen guest stars as actual artist judge, because hey, the guy knows a thing or two about newspapers. Let’s take a look at what worked last night and what didn't.


Lola’s really starting to get under Kymia’s skin in a way not even her adorable antics can redeem. Between the “suffering artist act,” (“I NEED TO TAKE A NAP!” Lola cries during their art-supply-gathering trip to Utrecht, resting her haunches on a step-stool with her head between her knees) and the goofy spontaneous bouts of song ("I wish I were a milliner, or whatever you call someone who makes weapons," Lola sings in the studio), Kymia’s nearly at the end of her rope. Well, the judges don't mind, and they're into Lola's "Inferior Arms Hobble Rebels in Libya War," a pencil drawing depicting active rebels on the ground decorated with various words ("arthritis," for instance, is written across one soldier's hand), accompanied by weapons and tools either made of or wrapped in newspaper. Jerry Saltz is smitten with what she calls her "editorializing" of the news piece, he urges to continue along the vein.

Regular top-three fixture Young Sun brings us, “China's Case Against Artist Cites Taxes, Paper Says,” an article published on the Chinese government's detainment of Ai Weiwei. After unsuccessful attempts to lift the words off the paper using bleach (who knew Clorox could be so fickle?), he instead paints the pages completely black, bundling dark stacks of them with the white headline “Where is Ai Weiwei?” strewn about the gallery. It’s a method, already done to death by Robert Gober, that the Sucklord finds pretty sucky and uninteresting. Shows how much he knows.    

Finally, for “New Poll Shows Darkening Mood Across America,” Dusty works crumpled pieces of newspaper into the shape of the good ol’ US of A, with black silhouettes of downtrodden people seemingly gathering together, their chins drooping and faces downturned. Bayeté, an all around pleasant human being, albeit a questionable artist, suggests the figures put up their fists. Dusty says, “I’m not a black man,” and in an adorable cross-cultural exchange, Bayeté spreads the good word that, “We don’t have a monopoloy on fists.” While it’s a heartwarming lesson we witness, the piece itself is plenty dark and depressing, and lands Dusty in good favor with the judges. We were totally gunning for our mulleted Arkansas heartthrob, who could’ve used that $20,000 to support his family and perhaps even re-impregnate his wife, but it’s Young Sun who takes the grand prize, which to Dusty translates into “a punch in the face.” Oh, Mrs. Dusty. Cross your fingers, your man will win next time.  


In last night’s episode it was brought to our attention that there’s a contestant named Sarah K, previously so middling she slipped quietly under everyone’s radar, neither finding herself in the top nor bottom three. Let’s take a look at her, shall we? She has an shrilly jovial laugh (an impression of which every other contestant seems to have down pat, although Young Sun gets the award for Best Mock Cackle), combined with a knack for making installation pieces and carving things with an Exacto knife. Simon de Pury points out that she’s never been in a crit before, an obvious offering to the altar of the Foreshadowing Gods. Her piece is centered on the headline “Darkness Invisible,” a book review of Alexandra Styron’s memoir chronicling her father William Styron’s descent into depression, which the famous author himself chronicled in the book "Darkness Visible." It's tenebrous subject matter, to be sure, and when Simon asks her if she's ever done anything dark before, her bubbly response (something along the lines of, "TOTALLY!") doesn't have him, or us, convinced. The judges are puzzled by her piece, three separate components carved from Times paper, mounted disparately on the wall. What are we really looking at here? Do we really care to know?

The Sucklord, who chose a headline on BP’s long overdue reparations to the Gulf, has been a little downtrodden lately. “I've been forbidden to use The Force,” he says, lest he face the medieval wrath of Jerry Saltz, which would likely involve his torture device of choice from the Dark Ages. Simon also reminds the Suck (as Lola affectionately refers to our darling hero) that he needs to quit with the literal stuff and start transforming his work. “Transformation?” he asks. “I keep hearing that word.” Of course he has the brilliant idea of smattering a sculptural pile of money with oil, because that’s not literal at all. "It's so ugly!" Lola says. "It's like a not-Robert Rauschenberg!" whom the Suck doesn't even like. Forgetting to incorporate the actual paper into his work until the last minute, he hastily wraps the money with strips from the Times to, you know, express the “complicitcy” of the media in the Gulf tragedy. Say what? No, shut up. 

And then there’s Bayete. Picking up the paper, he’s immediately drawn to the headline, “Different Church, More Sequins,” a review of the Broadway version of “Sister Act.” Not only does everyone love the sparkle of a sequiny gown, it’s a perfect vehicle for him to express his deep-seated “love/hate relationship with” Whoopi.  Oh sorry, I misheard. He actually said “organized religion.” He comes up with the brilliant idea of golden doors, a gateway to heaven of sorts, which Simon really digs conceptually. In reality, his presentation to the judges is a messily painted, lopsided pair of French doors with some shoddy silver letter spelling out the headline and wildly uneven handles. (“Uh, I painted the wrong side of a door,” he weakly explains. “You could’ve just flipped it over and painted the other side,” McEwen ingeniusly points out. Apparently Bayete failed quantum physics.) We’re disappointed, as the headline begs for more sparkles. Would it have killed him to whip out the Bedazzler?  

The look of relief on Bayete and the Sucklord’s faces when China Chow calls out Sarah K as this week's casualty makes us breathe a sigh of relief at home, because really, who’s Sarah K again? If the judges send someone home we have no emotional attachment to, that’s totally fine by us. That is until China finishes her sentence with “you’re safe for this week.” PSYCH! Bayete, go home. The Sucklord returns another day with his rattail between his legs, thankful that every time he’s sunk to the bottom, “There's always been one person who's made worse work than mine.”  

To end on a high note, we leave you with... . 


“Looks like someone buried the lede!” Bill cleverly quips at Kymia’s serial killer-headline inspired newspaper and plaster coffin. Can you roll over in there, metaphorical corpse? Because I’m about to shoot myself.