Facts of Life

Left: Power Station of Art director Shanghai Gong Yan, Shanghai Biennial curator Anselm Franke, and Li Xu, director of the Shanghai Biennal’s office. Right: Shanghai Biennial cocurators Liu Xiao, Freya Chou, and Cosmin Costinas.

IN THE FIRST FEW HOURS after my arrival in Shanghai, all anyone seemed to talk about were the films Lucy and Interstellar, and I was suddenly reminded of 2012, when one had to follow the popular soap opera Legend of Zhen Huan to participate in any conversations. It seems the Chinese art world’s interests have shifted from Qing Dynasty–era royal politics to apocalyptic futures grafted with fabulist science. A welcome change, in my book; if our fictions speak to a certain truth of our social life, how much more fun to privilege the future over the past, science fiction over fusty politics?

Fictions were also at the center of “Social Factory,” the tenth edition of the Shanghai Biennial and the ostensible reason so many of us made the trek over. Anselm Franke, who curated the biennial along with Freya Chou, Liu Xiao, and Para/site director Cosmin Costinas, takes as his premise the role that fictions play in the institutions that shape our daily life, his title invoking that Durkheimian metric the “social fact” as well as the proletarian mythologies central to modern Chinese political identity. It was a properly heady subject, and even if the biennial had been the only game in town, it would have been worth the trip.

As it was, I wish I’d had access to an Interstellar-style wormhole to make it through all the shows and openings. I lucked out with the second-best arrangement, a car and a group of like-minded friends. With this we were able to truck it through both the outer museums and galleries—BANK ART, Rockbund Art Museum (showing Ugo Rondinone), and Pearl Lam—before hitting the thriving M50 district, where we discovered MadeIn’s new production line at ShanghArt, Tang Dixin at Aike Dellarco, Yu Honglei at Antenna Space, and a smart doubleheader at Chronus Art Center: Jeffrey Shaw’s Advanced Visualization and Interaction Environment system and Hu Jieming’s mechanical monster.

Left: Artist Wang Jianwei and Liu Chuang Right: Artist Ming Wong and Trevor Yeung.

Our sci-fi fictions also played a role in one of the more inspired shows I saw last weekend, “Cosmos,” the inaugural exhibition at Shanghai’s 21st Century Minsheng Art Museum. The show brims with all sorts of fantastical work—from Ryoji Ikeda’s Radar (Shanghai) to Yang Zhenzhong’s interactive installation Please Sit—while the catalogue spins on weird and wonderful allusions. “[Stephen] Hawking’s arrow of time turns 360 degrees; do not attempt to exhaust all history within one second.” writes Dr. Ai Min, vice chairman of the Social Responsibility Management Committee of Minsheng Banking Corporation—and also, it turns out, a poet.

I finally made it to the massive Power Station, China’s only state-run contemporary art institution and the biennial’s current home, just in time for the 2 PM Saturday preview. The VIP and media desks were busy sorting out the different versions of invitation cards and entry bands, but the real chaos was in the exhibition itself, as preparators scurried to put last-minute touches on installations before the show opened—a common enough story in Chinese contemporary art. Even given the late adjustments, this biennial appears more polished than the last edition, when certain artists were encouraged to adapt their works to incorporate unintended transportation damages.

“Social Factory” touches on many disparate narratives: techno-animism and China’s early-twentieth-century enlightenment movement, the younger generations’ cyber explorations, middle-aged artists’ long-standing dedication to the heritage of the Cold War. Franke’s catalogue essay conjures an ambitious number of references, including Mao Zedong’s famous principle “seek truth from facts,” Alexander Kluge’s idea of the subjectivity of history, Confucius’s theory of the “living flow of things,” James Scott’s criticism of the nation-state, and, of course, cybernetics. None of these narratives are in opposition, and yet it’s also difficult to track direct relations among them. There are a lot of interesting associations, but also a lot of missed connections.

Left: Dealer Leo Xu, UCCA curator Venus Lau, and artist Cui Jie. Right: Yuko Hasegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian.

Indeed, the task of translation puts great pressure on Chinese art institutions who work with foreign artists and curators. “Such a big museum is operated by a small staff of under forty employees,” said Li Xu, the director of the biennial’s office. “Yesterday, I stayed at work until 4 AM, then came back a few hours later without even having time to take a shower.” The persistent tradition of installing minutes before the opening is at least partially due to the lack of staff who can coordinate between Chinese and foreign systems.

Even in situations where there are no language barriers, obstacles remain. At the entrance I encountered Chen Chieh-jen, who, as a Taiwanese artist dedicated to tracing labor and social movements through film, certainly makes an easy target for bowdlerization. Chen had just finished installing the day prior, but the delayed arrival of his work was not due to any political reason; rather, it was an administrative mistake on the part of the museum. “If my work were to be shipped back to Taipei, some Taiwanese press would seize the chance to label the incident as another case of censoring art’s freedom of expression. So I told the curators that such a situation should be avoided at all costs.” To Gao Shiming, member of the biennial’s “academic” (i.e., non-market-oriented) committee, Chen’s work Transformation Text—an installation that archives his prior practice in chapters, inspired by the Bianwen literary form of the Tang Dynasty—represents the biennial’s core. “Many do not realize that biopolitics must be discussed together with classical political economies,” Gao argued.

The “social factory” theme continued at the parallel Inter-Asia Biennial Forum. As part of the event, Japanese Tent Theater director Daizo Sakurai set up a temporary stage on the Power Station’s outdoor plaza, where independent media from Hong Kong, workers’ bands from Taipei, and members from Daizo’s Beijing theater troupe would gather for daylong performances and discussion.

Left: Theater director Wang Molin and artist Chen Chieh-jen. Right: Shanghai Biennial academic committee member Gao Shiming.

Tent Theater began as small underground productions in the 1960s with strong connections to Japan’s social movements. While contemporary art’s popularity in Asia rises, Daizo insists on keeping a distance from institutional structures. The members of his Tokyo group are mostly recent graduates from professional schools. According to Daizo, these youth are nomads, exiled from the collective of society at large. The professional art crowd that gathered at the Power Station during the biennial opening was like another kind of nomadic tribe. Its members speak multiple languages and travel between different countries; they believe in the power of art and culture; they are workaholics, activists, practitioners. To them, slowness is the enemy, and one must rapidly grasp opportunities and digest information.

Keeping on the fast train, that night more than one hundred guests gathered in the museum’s grand hall on the seventh floor for a dinner celebrating twenty years of the biennial. After a ten-minute black-and-white film, in which key figures recounted their personal involvement with the biennial accompanied by nostalgic music (“I wouldn’t want my face projected that big on a screen. You’d be able to see every pore on my nose,” artist Shi Qing murmured), committee member Homi Bhabha raised a glass and offered his own incisive if sentimental toast to this edition. “In this moment,” he said, “confrontations and differences will be resolved only through a repetition of slow reflections of the complexity with which we have to struggle. In every way, this biennial is struggling as we speak.”

Who can argue with that? Though the practice may be harder than the preach. For the nomadic art tribe, someone suggested, the surest way to achieve “a repetition of slow reflections” might be through that most universal social fact: the hangover. And with that goal in sight, we merrily repaired to the afterparty.

Left: Homi Bhabha and editor Aimee Lin. Right: Japanese tent-theater director Daizo Sakurai.

Left: UCCA director Philip Tinari. Right: Creative Director of Beijing Design Week Beatrice Leanza, M+ curator of visual arts Pauline Yao, curator Guo Xiaoyan, and James Cohan Gallery's Arthur Solway.

Left: Katie de Tilly, director of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. Right: Critic Carol Yinghua Lu and artist Liu Ding.

Left: Artist Zhu Jingyi and Tang Dixin. Right: Artist Zhang Ding.

Left: Artist Huang Ran. Right: Artist Kan Xuan and Shi Yong.

Left: Nicolai Jonkers, dealer Pilar Corria, and Irina Stark from Pilar Corrias Gallery. Right: Xi'an Oct Art Museum's Fan Ni from and Karen Smith.

Left: Artist Liu Jianhua and board director of Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum Lai Hsiangling. Right: Artist Lin Yilin and gallerist Lorenz Helbling.

Left: Curator Fei Dawei. Right: Artist Yang Zhenzhong and Zhang Qinghong from Chronus Art Center.

Left: Roberto Ceresia, director of Aike Dellarco Gallery. Right: Curator Mathieu Borysevicz and friends.

Left: Artist Michael Lin (left). Right: Li Xianting, director of Li Xianting Film Fund, and artist Liu Xiaodong.