For the past three weekends, a bus departing New York City’s Chinatown for the Chinatowns of Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore was quite unlike the others – it was filled with artists and observers taking part in a sort of moving art fair. The Fung Wah Biennial, as it is known, is the brainchild of three curators as both an homage to the now-defunct Fung Wah bus service and as a tongue-in-cheek answer to high-flying international art fairs like Venice Biennale and Art Basel.
Like many of us, Will Owen, one of the show’s creators and organizers, spent years riding the Fung Wah between school in Boston and friends and gigs in New York. He cherished its bare-bones efficiency and economy, as well as the way it seemed to bring a diverse crowd of students, backpackers, service workers and immigrants together on a shared 200-mile journey across the Northeast. When the bus company closed in 2015, budget-conscious travelers gave a collective moan. While a few other Chinatown buses remain, their main successors, MegaBus and Boltbus, seem to lack the scrappy charm Owen and so many others found in Fung Wah.
Artist Marjan Verstappen serves passengers refreshments as part of a performance piece
Image via Alex Nathanson
Broadly, the 25-plus artists participating in the show appealed to some of those themes – international migration, the solitude and banality of cross-country travel, the value of physical place in an increasingly digitally connected world. Their contributions range from the physical to the ephemeral – installations, performances, projections, musical pieces, web-based interactive stunts.
An LED installation visualizes passengers’ responses to a survey about travel
Image via Bryan Chang
Ariel Abrahams and Rony Efrat staged a poetic exchange over a group text message, allowing other riders to participate by replying all. Musicians Alex Nathanson and Dylan Neely “scored” the journey by performing a combination of “noise and chamber music” based on their interpretations of the passing landscape. Keith Hartwig and David Newman installed an LED light show visible to both passengers and outside passersby that visualizes passengers’ responses to a questionnaire about travel. Marjan Verstappen and Jessica Vallentin prepared snacks for fellow riders that were customized to each trip; the Philadelphia leg featured cups of moss and a Philly cheesesteak-flavored pill.
Joshua Caleb Weibley plays solitaire over and over on a vintage ’90s laptop
Image via Alex Nathanson
Will Owen and Matthias Borello, another co-curator of the show, are no strangers to the concept of art in motion. Last summer, they rigged a tour boat in Copenhagen with art work and musical performers as part of Copenhagen Art Week. They think the idea translates well to New York City, where so many artists live and work but come from elsewhere. The Fung Wah Biennial itself features artists originally hailing from China, Mexico, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic, and Denmark.
Magali Duzant distributes copies of her newspaper The Fung Wah Express. Image via Alex Nathanson
By throwing an art fair on a coach bus, the organizers also hope to call attention to the high and growing costs for artists who choose to live and work in New York City. A large moving vehicle as art studio or performance venue? Certainly cheaper than a Manhattan theater rental. A troupe of artists shuttling out toward second-tier East Coast cities at 70 miles per hour might also be seen as a metaphor for the cost-of-living and gentrification pressures thrust on New York City artists.
Yet, at the end of a packed day of art-related visits and discussions in the destination citites, our artists boarded the bus again and returned home to New York. For those of us who didn’t have the pleasure of joining one of these art-filled excursions, all the pieces will be on display – in a comparably immobile environment – at the Flex Factory in Long Island City for the last couple weeks in March.
Fung Wah Biennial Gallery Exhibit at Flux Factory 39-31 29th Street, Long Island City, NY 11101 from March 22nd – March 31st, 2016, with an opening reception on the night of Friday March 25th, from 6-11 pm.