The New York City Armory Show, now in its 17th year on Piers 92 and 94 around 55th Street, opens Thursday, March 5, 2015 with an ambitious format that merges a curated theme show with the open-stall bazaar model used for most art fairs.

This year’s emphasis, in the Sixth Edition of Armory Focus, is on a curated group of shows from the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, abbreviated to MENAM, presented by galleries and dealers from those areas. Overall, Pier 94 is devoted to Contemporary art; Pier 92 houses the fair’s Modern art.

The MENAM Focus was put together by Omar Kholeif, curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, to bring imagery, thinking and an evolving cultural legacy not often seen in Western art venues. With that in mind, anyone who might be expecting solemn and proud geographical puffery will have to think again. While history and geography figure prominently in the themes that hold the show together, there is a large measure of wit and humor to boot. Truth be told, these artists are funny as hell.

The first "gag" was a show favorite:  A costumed performance artist gliding among the stalls on a magic carpet right out of the “Thousand and One Nights,” as stiff and imperturbable as the guards at Buckingham Palace, ignoring several attempts to have him pause for a moment and speak with a writer. The carpet was affixed persuasively to an unseen electric skateboard, which moved silently among the crowd, and with the rider wearing an Indian wedding Sherwani—the magic carpet story comes from India—it all held together.

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Titled The Flying Carpet, the series of performances by Darvish Fakhr will use the motorized longboard/Persian carpet to navigate the MENAM neighborhoods of New York, and develop an analysis of MENAM’s contemporary art scene.

The “Thousand and One Nights” is a collection of South Asian folklore compiled during the Islamic Golden age, circa (786 to 809) when the West was drifting into the dark ages and nations of the Arabian peninsula and western Asia were experiencing a scientific enlightenment. These stories were first translated into English in 1706 as “TheArabian Nights’ Entertainment.”

The first exposure to the East for many Western generations came from bedtime stories of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” added to the Nights in the 18th century. Fakhr’s flying carpet was a smack-on sendup of fantasies of the cultural other.

The second piece to linger on was a group of works created by Wafaa Bilal for the Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was littered with statues of Hussein from one end of the country to the other, most destroyed by mobs in the days after the coalition invasion in 2003. One of the previous projects of the ruling Baathist party, according to the gallery flyer, was to put a statue of Saddam Hussein into geosynchronous orbit above Iraq.

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Sculpture from "Canto III" by Wafaa Bilal. Presented by Lawrie Shababi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

Sculpture from "Canto III" by Wafaa Bilal. Presented by Lawrie Shababi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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This was one of those uber-bizarre projects never completed, of course, but it is mused on by Mr. Bilal, who constructed a casting of Hussein about Sputnik size and Photoshopped a print of his bust drifting above the Persian Gulf, fulfilling the outer space madness of the butcher of Baghdad.

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"Space Junk" by Wafaa Bilal, 2015. C-print face mounted on plexiglass, 59 x 43 inches. Part of "Canto III." Presented by Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

"Space Junk" by Wafaa Bilal, 2015. C-print face mounted on plexiglass, 59 x 43 inches. Part of "Canto III." Presented by Lawrie Shabibi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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Thereafter Bilal’s project gets a little muddy with ruminations by Lord Byron in his “Cantos” and Shelley in his “Ozymandias” that this is the way it has always been: always walking on the dust of empires collapsed.  Oddly, Bilal names his project Canto III, which seems curious, as the third “Canto” by Byron was about Don Juan, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with Hussein. This curious and selective use of history seems unfortunately all too current as a balm for current atrocities: “It's the way it’s always been.”

Outside the fascinating MENAM section are approximately 5 acres of every possible style and appearance of artwork created in the past hundred years, something for everyone, most not very good, little that will last, and certainly none of it held together by a theme.

One new oddity is the current penchant for art jokes;  I saw several versions of Donald Judd’s seminal stacked boxes, which Judd referred to with the austere “Stack.”

Whereas the original was done with iron or plywood, these jokey knockoffs were done with junk materials, and one with potted plants. Jose Dávila’s 2015 untitled (stacks) is a group of stacked packing boxes sticking out from the wall, perhaps meant as an arte povera version of Judd’s sculpture. It’s instantly recognizable as this ’60s formalism, but with a twist unclear in its intentions.

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"Untitled (Stacks)" by Jose Dávila, 2015. Exhibited with Philipp von Rosen Galerie. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

"Untitled (Stacks)" by Jose Dávila, 2015. Exhibited with Philipp von Rosen Galerie. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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One piece that was not unclear in intentions was an annoying trashing Alexander Calder’s craft by re-creating a section of it with pigeons pooping on it. Nathan Mabry titled this Modernist derivative The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Le Taureau). This new shtick seems to indicate the inability of the next generation to form their own identity in the presence of more sophisticated minds than theirs, as if they might be stuck in the mid-teens identity of a rebellious child.

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“The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Le Taureau)” by Nathan Mabry. Exhibited with Cherry and Martin. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

“The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Le Taureau)” by Nathan Mabry. Exhibited with Cherry and Martin. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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Detail of “The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Le Taureau)” by Nathan Mabry. Exhibited with Cherry and Martin. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

Detail of “The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Le Taureau)” by Nathan Mabry. Exhibited with Cherry and Martin. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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Things in motion generally fare better at cultural flea markets, as so much of the background is already in motion. This is especially true if such moving pieces personify the festive and light mood. For one example, Andrew Ohanesian installed a couple of slot machines, adding to the Vegas trade show atmosphere.

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Slot Machines installed by Andrew Ohanesian. Exhibited with Pierogi. Slot Machines installed by Andrew Ohanesian. Exhibited with Pierogi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

Slot Machines installed by Andrew Ohanesian. Exhibited with Pierogi. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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Also, William Kentridge is showing a witty video of a cartoon character, Tango, superimposed on top of the pages of a book, “Tango: For Page Turning” (2012). Brought to the fair by the Lia Rumma gallery of Milan and Naples, this was one of the better works among the thousands on display.

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One surprise heavyweight in attendance was Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, whose Salzburg and Paris spaces handle some of the more accomplished artists in the world. The gallery brought to the fair many high-end works, including two killer sculptures of deep beauty and resolution.

The first is a stone carving by British sculptor Tony Cragg and the second a cast stainless steel sculpture by Swiss artist Not Vital (pronounced note vee-tal’). The work by Cragg was predictably good, but perhaps too similar to many others he’s done at this point, and hovers between weltanschauungs of abstraction and figuration.

I mistook Not Vital’s dark stainless organic monolith for a hyper-finished piece by Brit Anish Kapoor, but with perhaps a hint of a stylized face, which would have been an odd development for Kapoor. Vital constructed the piece to human scale at about six feet high and with a smoky polished stainless steel surface. It is a beautiful object with a severe and enduring mysterium tremendum, art at its best.

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"HEAD (Dong Xu)" by Not Vital, 2014. Stainless steel with PVD coating, 68.9 x 59.45 x 48.03 inches. Ed. 1 of 3. Exhibited with Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

"HEAD (Dong Xu)" by Not Vital, 2014. Stainless steel with PVD coating, 68.9 x 59.45 x 48.03 inches. Ed. 1 of 3. Exhibited with Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. Photo by Sage Cotignola.

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One new feature for the fair this year is “Artsy," an iPhone navigation app that locates the different galleries on the two piers, as well as containing a comprehensive inventory of work in these galleries along with prices and other features. This is a free download and I'd recommend it, lest one find it challenging or impossible to find the way back to something that inspired. 

So there you have it, this year’s Armory show is a wide open walking tour of the world’s art with something for everyone, including—among much—magic carpets, Satellite Sadam, and some of the best sculpture to be offered by the Europeans.

BASIC FACTS: The Armory Show, March 5 through 8, 2015, at Piers 92 & 94, 12th Avenue and 55th Street, New York. www.thearmoryshow.com. A review on The Armory's Modern Section publishes next.

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