The company of frozen smiles

China, USA| Views: 55

Fly with angelhaha, fly with happiness. Your plane is ready. You may now set off for the arty destination of your choice. Qinmin Liu is your cabin crew today. Drawing on her own fear of travel, the Chinese-American artist serves up a project that fuses art and corporate image, featuring an airplane used to embody a space outside of time to transport viewers deep into the heart of artistic experience.

In 2017, the artist started her own airline, Angelhaha Airline, offering one-way trips to the world’s biggest art events. New York, Hong Kong, Basel, Berlin, Venice and a host of other destinations all seemed to lead back to the artist’s catchphrase, ‘happiness is right in front of you’, which she had already used as the title for one of her performances in 2016 at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.

But far from the standard, and sometimes even nerve-wracking flights viewers may be used to, the artist promises an uplifting, relaxed experience in a plane kitted out by her own hand. A total of 25 flights are planned, with the artist acting as CEO, company rep and head flight attendant all rolled into one. Atmosphere, in-flight meals and smiles are all carefully considered to provide passengers with a full experience, in which “the whole thing is a performance,” as the artist explained in November’s issue of Hyperallergic.

But although the company name, slogan and promotional photos on the website (which show her playing around with a model of the plane) seem straightforward enough, the advert shown on a Chinese television channel reveals the artist’s true agenda: to gently poke fun at our nomadic lifestyles and the promises of a globalised world.

The advert shows a fifteen-second close-up of a laugh, as if inviting us to be wary of overly-broad smiles and excessively white teeth bared on angelic faces. The irony here is palpable: A Barbie-inspired air hostess, a jaunty cap, fuchsia lips and a candy pink slogan that draws on everyday advertising lingo. The entire project is imbued with a sense of artificial happiness, and one can only too clearly imagine Qinmin Liu treating her passengers to her biggest, fakest smile, as described by David Foster Wallace: “You know this smile – the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee.1

Qinmin’s work is a Trojan horse, a project that aims to highlight the vacuity of terms like ‘happiness’ or ‘well-being’, tirelessly hammered into the collective consciousness in a bid to sell.

And she isn’t alone in taking on the parallel world of airports. From Jacques Tati (Trafic) to Noam Toran (Desire Management), airports have been used as synonyms of speed, progress and instant propulsion to another world, an endless source of inspiration for artists. The same year, French art duo Stephane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon published Psychoanalysis of the International Airport, an essay that imagines potential alternatives and narratives aimed at deconstructing and reconstructing the world we live in.

Airports are condensed embodiments of contemporary paradoxes: the promise of freedom and exoticism clashes with body searches, unlimited movement runs parallel to widespread surveillance, and dreams of somewhere different and unfamiliar are replaced with duty-free shopping centres and the threat of terrorism. Airports are laboratories of modern living – and need careful monitoring.


Couverture : Qinmin Liu, Angelhaha, 2018. © qinmin_liu, Instagram.

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