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  • (CONTEMPORARY) ART WORKS YOU MUST SEE TO UNDERSTAND (CONTEMPORARY) CHINA

    London-based photographer Chen Shanshan brings us an article of 2014 Shanghai Biennale, which expresses her point of views of some impressed piece of art works. Enjoy!

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    (Contemporary) art works you must see to understand (contemporary) China — A unofficial guide to the 10th Shanghai Biennale

    text & photograph /// Chen Shanshan

    The western world has shown incredible interest in Chinese art in 2014. BBC spent there months to take the epic journey from Taipei National Museum to Mogao Caves shooting “Art of China”. British Museum had its largest thematic exhibition on Chinese art: “Ming Dynasty: 50 years that changed China”.

    Berlin-based Anselm Franke, chief-curator of the 10th Shanghai Biennale, has brought this western vision to China’s most established and influential contemporary art exhibition. The 10th Shanghai Biennale entitled “Social Factory” runs until 31 March 2015 across three stories in the Blade Runner-style Power Station of Art, the state-run contemporary art museum converted from a power plant at the bank of Huangpu River. Amongst 77 artists’ works, two-thirds contain the key word “China”, from pop-culture to the state policy of Reform and Opening-up, from land rights to urbanisation. Each work gives the audience a glimpse of contemporary China in the artistic context.

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    “Segmented Landscape” /// mixed media installation

    Liu Chuang (b.1978)

    Liu Chuang’s “Segmented Landscape (2014)” struck me as both playful and genuine. Liu adopted “‘chuang” in his own name, meaning “window” in Chinese, and designed a set of larger-than-life anti-burglary grills over windows with opaque white curtains. Installing such devices that looks like cages on balconies and windows is collective memory and life experience of Chinese city dwellers in 1980s and 1990s, when people started to have their own flats and more personal valuables. The geometric patterns of the grills designed by Liu himself, not unlike the real things that are still popular in most Chinese cities, cast shadows on the flowing curtains – the windows without any real functions look surrealistic inside the gallery space. “Segmented Landscape” resonates the most amongst all works with my own experience growing up in a Chinese city, and has the kind of self-deprecating humour that I always enjoy.

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    “THE TRUTH or: HOW TO TEACH THE PIANO CHINESE” /// Computer-controlled Piano and Screened Text

    Peter Ablinger (b.1959) & Winfried Ritsch (b.1964)

    “THE TRUTH or: HOW TO TEACH THE PIANO CHINESE (2014)” contains a computer-controlled piano by German composer Peter Ablinger and sound engineer Winfried Ritsch. The “Yangtze River” brand grand piano plays “Rauschen” (noise) and the scales that simulate the phrase “seek truth from facts” (shi shi qiu shi) hiding in-between can only be recognised by Chinese speakers. The four characters comprising the phrase hits one after another from a projector on a huge screen hung above the piano. The resonance of those emphasised notes can be heard from almost every corner of the museum.

    Peter Ablinger defines the German term “Rauschen” the locus of the void and, simultaneously, the totality of all sounds. In a similar way, for those who can recognise the phrase, “seek truth from facts” is the whole meaning of the work whilst for the others, nothing.

    “Seek truth from facts” is an ancient Chinese principle famously invoked by Mao Zedong in 1938 and 40 years later in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping before the Reform and Opening-up. It is ironic that it has become a programme in the “memory” of a mechanical device. Its meaning has already been separated from the text even if it is one of most popular propaganda slogans. Can the phrase still evoke some memories from people who has experienced the history of those times?

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    ​“1999” /// sound installation

    Liu Ding (b.1975)

    Liu Ding’s sound installation “1999” consists of impressive 60 white walls equipped with black telephones, where the visitors can listen to pop music and critics on pop-culture that Liu has written and published during the 1990s.

    The installation sits quietly under the warm light by the elevator on the first floor of the Power Station of Art, where the audience can hear the piano by Peter Ablinger and Winfried Ritsch repeating “seek truth from facts” one floor below. The 2.5-metre walls cast shadow on whoever stands nearby – in a glimpse, it reminds me of the “Silent Garden” in the Holocaust Museum and the Holocaust Monument in Berlin, where the same kind of solemn, monument-style establishment contains something that has become immortal.
    When the visitors interact with the artwork, they can only listen but cannot talk. It reflects Liu’s understanding of Chinese art and pop-culture: on the surface, the art world during 1990s is rebellious and oppositional to the official system, but in reality the intellectuals and artists only produce works that can recognised through the “framework” of the existing social order and of central political power.

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    “Ten Mile Inn” /// Photograph

    David Crook (1910-2000) & Isabel Crook (b.1915)

    Since 2010, young academic Gao Chu and Wang Shuo have helped to re-corganise the photographs and manuscripts of David and Isabel Crook, who have lived in Ten Miles Inn (Shilidian), one of the first liberated areas in Chinese revolution. In 2012, David Crook, posthumously, and Isbel Crook published “Mass Movement in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn”, vividly recording the years before the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949.

    The room dedicated to the Crook’s archive is a curious diversion in a contemporary art exhibition. The academic approach and the​self-explanatory display ​provide a more truthful narration of that times, much more than the stories from Chinese text books and propaganda films.

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    “KEYWORDS LAB” /// Mixed Media Installation

    Xu Tan (b.1957)

    When “Ten Miles Inn” project reveals the farmers’ movement almost 70 years ago in the remote part of Shanxi, “Keywords Lab” initiated by Xu Tan in 2005 records the relationship between farmers and the urban area surrounded their land in the economically flourishing Pearl River Delta region in southeast China. Xu interviewed the rural inhabitants and through their interactions, the artist exposes the complexities of such relationship and analyses the processes of urbanisation in contemporary China. The juxtaposition of the two multimedia projects shows the states of farmers in the Chinese history 70 years apart.

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    “Great Wall” /// Acrylic on Paper

    Firenze Lai (b. 1984)

    Hong Kong-based artist Firenze Lai’s paintings are like a breeze, differentiating themselves from many works that are bluntly political. Her utmost simplistic brushes outlines the interior life and psychological landscapes of residents in Hong Kong, and draw the viewers into the world of individuals. Most painting present one figure, at most two, with a vague expression that can be read as solemn or indifference against an abstract background. The works are inspired by Hong Kong’s notoriously cramped living spaces or oppressive political situations, which Lai defines them as “situation portraits”, where she studies how people adapt the mind and the body in different circumstances.

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    “Minds of Fringe Poets” /// Video

    Huang Ming-Chuang (b. 1955)

    Taiwanese artist Huang Ming-Chuang also chooses a more artistic approach to analyse history. He initiated a decade-long film project with 100 Taiwanese poets where they read their poetry as part of oral history. The changes in voices and accents reveal different geopolitical and individual identities but nonetheless they come together to write an alternative history of the island of Taiwan – also part of the Chinese history in this state-run exhibition despite the long-running dispute over Taiwan’s identity.

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    It is hard to conclude if the 10th Shanghai Biennale has achieved its aim to be the most cutting-edged state-run contemporary art exhibition in terms of artistic achievement, but doubling the number of visitors of the first Biennale in 1996, may prove its increasing influence in the public involvement.

    In China, art exhibitions of such a scale can easily end up a mammoth of political propaganda, for they need the national support and financing. Franke is the first non-Chinese chief curator since the 1st Biennale in 1996, and it may say something about China’s determination to bridge its art to the rest of the world, to earn more artistic revenues from the international communities.

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