Critics’ Picks

Cai Guo-Qiang, Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1993, single channel video, color, sound, 10 minutes 7 seconds.


“Frontier – Re-assessment of Post-Globalizational Politics”

OCAT Shanghai | OCAT上海馆
30 Wen An Road, Shanghai
December 30–March 11

According to curator Lu Mingjun, the theme of this exhibition was inspired by the late historian Owen Lattimore’s writing on the frontiers of China. For Lattimore, the Great Wall is not a physical demarcation of the civilized from the barbaric but rather a large peripheral zone that is effectively the product of historical interaction between nomadic and agricultural cultures. Contained in this idea is a history of Greater China as an essentially multicultural entity. This conception is partly realized by the video that greets visitors in the front corridor of the exhibition: Cai Guo-Qiang’s Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1993, for which the artist ignited a six-mile fuse of gunpowder he and volunteers laid out in the Gobi Desert, where the official wall ends.

This large exhibition is therefore separated into two by Cai’s “Great Wall”; the works to its left revolve around the motifs of boundaries and geopolitics, while the other side chiefly presents the dialectic between the postglobalization era and the reality of frontiers. Compared with works by mainland artists that manifest a will to trespass—such as Xu Zhen’s 18 Days, 2006; Zhang Yue and Bao Xiaowei’s documentary About the War In Northern Myanmar, 2015; and He Xiangyu’s The Swim, 2017—the boundary as a frontier guarantees the integrity of the nation-state. Works by Hong Kong or Taiwanese artists often internalize boundaries into a frontline on which they discuss and construct regional identities.

The first room of the exhibition is both the entrance and the exit. It is likely that a viewer navigating between the left and right wings will miss works in the front room, such as the cartoon My Borderland, 2011, in which a figure traces his own outline on the ground. This illustration, created by political philosopher Zhao Tingyang, suggests the tension between autonomy and the natural state inherent in individuals. Looking back at Guo-Qiang’s work, one wonders: What could extraterrestrials mean? The universe is yet another part of our complicated reality.

Translated from Chinese by Li Bowen.