PRINT December 2008

Philip Tinari


1 ”Wu Shanzhuan: Red Humor International” (Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou, China) As the first major solo exhibition of the most overlooked Chinese conceptualist—and especially as the first substantive retrospective of a living artist’s work organized by a state museum along curatorial and institutional imperatives—this show was a milestone. Organized by Gao Shiming, Ching Tsong-zung, and Guo Xiaoyan, it included long-term textual projects such as Things’ Rights (a witty, analytic rewriting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights); collages evoking the migratory dynamics surrounding the artist’s relocation to Hamburg in the 1990s; and a room re-creating the landmark 1986 installation that began his “Red Humor” project. And so Wu finally came into focus for his Chinese peers, among whom he has been long revered but little understood.

2 Gu Dexin, 2008.6.21 (Shanghai Gallery of Art) Since Gu vowed not to do an exhibition in Beijing in 2008 (no explanation needed), this intriguing presentation of his continued engagement with the Sims, the architectural-simulation computer game made famous some eight years ago, took place in Shanghai. Seeing photographs and videos culled from inside the game alongside architectural models of the three homes Gu had first “built” using the program’s large but finite roster of elements, I was struck by the implicit social critique: No matter how many choices a world appears to offer, the possibilities are always circumscribed.

3 Ai Weiwei’s Chinese New Year fireworks The New Year’s celebration at Ai’s compound in Caochangdi Village always resembles the wedding scene in The Godfather, with notables mingling inside the walls while a line of cars waits outside. This year the artist sat in his studio playing poker while his assistants, led by his driver, “Little Fatty”—they work even more like Sopranos functionaries than their nicknames suggest—choreographed an intricate pyrotechnic show before a full audience on the lawn. The spectacle was also visible from the roofs of all the other Ai-designed gray brick buildings in the district.

4 Kan Xuan’s early documentaries Back in the late ’90s, long before she went to the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and launched her international career, Kan was the earner among her artist peers. In 1999, she got hold of a 3CCD digital video camera, which she used to document the art and social dynamics of two landmark artist-organized shows—“Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion” in Beijing and “Supermarket: Art for Sale” in Shanghai—and later made two splendid hour-long films from the footage. Though they have not yet been released, I got the chance to see them this year in Kan’s studio. Together they offer both the archival pleasure of revisiting these exhibitions and a revealing glimpse into the artistic childhoods of now-prominent artists such as Liu Wei, Yang Fudong, and Xu Zhen.

5 The stroke order of nations at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games Nothing in the orchestration of the Olympics this summer performed the complex cultural implications of a resurgent China better than the march of 204 national delegations into the “Bird’s Nest” on the night of August 8: Their order was determined by the number of strokes in the first character of each country’s official name as written in Mao-promulgated “simplified” characters, rather than by alphabetical order. For the Western viewer, this completely upset any predictable sequence of countries. Yet this foreignness was not what it seemed, since most national toponyms in Chinese are themselves based on clumsy transliterations of Western languages.

6 “Avant-Garde China: 20 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art” (National Art Center, Tokyo) Proving that a “China show” can traverse genres and generations without succumbing to socioeconomic cliché, this overview sketched a convincing history that at once highlighted conceptualist collectives such as the Xiamen Dada and the New Analysts and nailed the moment when ’80s painterly experimentation crystallized into ’90s auction-ready style. The depth of the art-historical attention of curator Tatehata Akira stood in sharp contrast to the incongruous pairings and easy generalizations of the Saatchi Gallery’s “The Revolution Continues” this fall, even if both did end with the same group of wheelchair-bound sculptures of desiccated world leaders by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu.

7 Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (Central Police Station Compound, Hong Kong) More notable for context than content, this architecture exhibition unfolded across twenty-seven buildings of a former prison located on more than three acres of prime real estate on Hollywood Road. The site, which embodies a distinctly colonial conflation of policing, jurisprudence, and punishment any Foucauldian would appreciate, is being transformed into an arts zone by the nonprofit arm of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. The renewal plan, commissioned from Herzog & de Meuron, features a bamboolike crystal tower, which has already drawn local residents into the streets in protest.

8 Sankeien Garden, Yokohama Triennale 2008 The off-site venue has become something of a curatorial one-liner in recent grand shows—think of the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe at last year’s Documenta, or the Uijae Museum of Korean Art at this year’s Gwangju Biennale. In the Yokohama show, the Sankeien Garden rewarded viewers not only with a walk in the park but with a few lyrical pieces—among them Nakaya Fujiko’s misty waterfall, and Tino Sehgal’s dancer pair kissing their way around the floor of a historic thatched house.

9 Zhao Zhao, “Daquangou” (China Art Archives and Warehouse)Beijing’s debut of the year comes from one of Ai Weiwei’s aforementioned studio assistants. Having used his travels with Ai to make sculptures and photographic triptychs steeped in the practice of vandalizing earlier artworks, Zhao here showed, for instance, part of a basalt column from Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks), 1982–87, project ground into a Buddhist rosary, and a piece of Anselm Kiefer’s Volkszählung (Census), 1991, molded into euro coins. For another chilling series, Zhao photographed himself carrying a wooden likeness of a childhood friend up a snowy peak near Ürümqi, in northwest China, where that friend met an early death last year.

10 Shopping Gallery, 50 Moganshan Lu, Shanghai Since opening in July, this tiny space—whose Chinese name is a joking homage to market-opener Deng Xiaoping—has served as an ironic ploy to raise capital to support various independent art projects and websites, selling unstretched student canvases at bargain-basement prices. An exhibition in September was billed as a three-man show of Wu Shanzhuan, Wang Xingwei, and Liao Guohe, but actually included no work by either Wu or Wang, whose significantly bigger names were included to attract visitors. The show was publicized using the same kitschy miniature helium balloons used to mark the opening of new malls and condo developments in provincial cities.

A writer and curator, Philip Tinari is a contributing editor of Artforum and editor of U-Turn, a serialized journal of the history of contemporary Chinese art. This year he organized the exhibitions “Delirious Beijing” for PKM Gallery in Beijing and “Cylwxz” for Esther Schipper in Berlin.