PRINT December 2010

Pauline J. Yao

1 The sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China It’s hard to know which was more surreal: the troops and tanks parading before China’s paramount leader, Hu Jintao, on the morning of October 1 last year, or the two commemorative exhibitions mounted by the Ministry of Culture and the National Art Museum of China to mark the occasion. The first, “Report to the Motherland—Sixty Years of Art in the New China,” trotted out a selection of iconic works of the country’s modern art history, yet the decision to group works accroding to traditional media cleverly masked the absence of “contemporary art” as we know it. The second, “Historical Themes in the Fine Arts,” featured more than a hundred realist paintings of historical events from the 1840s to the present—yet all the works were made in 2009. Like the fanfare and spectacle surrounding this national day, both exhibitions left a chilling impression of time standing still.

2 Liang Shuo, Fit (C5 Art Gallery, Beijing) Five rambling rooms chock-full of everyday objects collected over the past two years, Liang’s Fit, 2010, is a Gesamtkunstwerk monument to the plastic, gaudy, and jury-rigged aesthetic that permeates contemporary China. Yet the artist’s formal preoccupation with fitting, stuffing, jamming, squeezing, or otherwise affixing these items together marks a refreshing departure from predictable critiques of global markets and world manufacturing.

3 “Glass Factory: Art in the New Financial Era” (Iberia Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; curated by Sun Jianchun) No doubt thanks to the artists who instigated it, this exhibition was of a kind rare in China: It stood out less for presenting art that is new or little known than for the selection of works and how they functioned together. In Ni Haifeng’s Reciprocal Fetishism, 2010, a forest of white plinths displays the personal effects of an unnamed individual, thoughtfully addressing notions of “value” and “exchange” within the fraught artist-collector relationship. The photographs in Hong Hao’s Promotional Plan, 2009, humorously equate the activities of buying vegetables and consuming art. Far from just another exhibition critiquing the art market, “Glass Factory” smartly articulated the need to look again at how value systems for art function amid today’s rampant culture of consumption.

4 Hu Xiangqian (Taikang Space, Beijing; curated by Tang Xin and Su Wenxiang) Hu has spent the past few years collecting conceptual artworks—or rather, he has been conceptually collecting artworks. This exhibition documented the Hu Xiangqian Art Museum, 2010, a breathless quarter-hour monologue in which the artist described each work in his fictional collection from memory, occasionally making dancelike bodily movements. The performance typified Hu’s tendency to put himself in unlikely situations, be it running for mayor in his hometown at age twenty-one (Flying Blue Flag, 2005), attempting to turn his skin black through excessive sunbathing (The Sun, 2008), or trying his hand at survivalism during fifteen days in the wilderness (Superfluous Knowledge, 2010).

5 Reactions to artist’s-studio demolitions The question of what it means to be an artist today is perhaps nowhere more pressing than in China, where contemporary art enjoys few outlets and even fewer freedoms. Thus the brutal evictions from and subsequent demolitions of artists’ studios in Beijing were especially traumatic for the individuals involved, not to mention for the surviving art spaces that stand in the way of urban expansion. The unfortunate events may, however, have triggered a welcome renewal of political activism and awareness in the arts scene, even while they resulted in unlawful abuse and profound feelings of disempowerment (notably surrounding the detention of artist Wu Yuren).

6 Wang Wei, Historic Residence (Space Station, Beijing) Wang’s recent forays into appropriating ready-made architectural features culminated in this powerful work, in which the Beijing-based artist faithfully reproduced—in exaggerated proportions, bifurcating the gallery space—the private bathrooms of Chairman Mao and his wife Jiang Qing. Copied from the couple’s seldom-used retreat in Hunan Province, the oversize spaces offered a lesson in manufactured nostalgia, dutifully appearing at once stately and frugal—qualities evident in everything from the retro-styled pale yellow and mint-green ceramic tiles down to Mao’s threadbare bathrobe.

7 The opening of the Taipei Contemporary Art Center, Taiwan Occupying two adjacent four-level stores in a downtown area slated for redevelopment, this multipurpose art space is run by a team of curators and artists including Amy Cheng, Meiya Cheng, Manray Hsu, Kuangyu Tsui, Jun Yang, and Yao Jui-Chung. Given the already contentious nature of the Taipei art scene, their attempt to carve out a truly independent platform for exchange may be either enlightened or foolhardy, but it is most certainly newsworthy.

8 The Institute of Critical Zoologists Centered around notions of knowledge production and enmeshed with philosophy, natural history, and anthropology, the Singapore- and Japan-based ICZ is the brainchild of Zhao Renhui (Robert Zhao), a photographer and former animal rights activist. The stunning images taken by ICZ members—of, say, coastal whaling towns in Japan or Pulau Pejantan island in Indonesia—may be truthful depictions or artful fabrications, but it hardly matters: Zhao succeeds in proving that our assumptions about reality must be rigorously questioned if not, on occasion, fully abandoned.

9 Paul Pfeiffer, The Saints (Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin) A single visual cue on a miniature video screen—a lone individual moving aimlessly around a grassy pitch—simultaneously ties together this moving installation and signals its dissociative spirit. Removing all but one player from footage of the World Cup final between England and West Germany in 1966 (which England won after being awarded a controversial goal in extra time), Pfeiffer deftly conjures up notions of history, repetition, and performativity. Another section of the work shows a slightly menacing Filipino crowd cheering along to the match, suggesting a subtext of geopolitical tension. Notably, the piece—made in 2007—presaged this year’s World Cup mania, right down to the clumsy officiating.

10 Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Chen Shaoxiong (Osage Gallery, Shanghai) The collaboration between Chen and Ozawa may have started under the pretext of cultural exchange between China and Japan, but it has steadily matured into fruitful cooperation between two highly agile and creative minds. In this show, jointly made works dating from 2005 and this year bookended videos and photographs that chart the overlapping thematic trajectories in the artists’ respective careers. Intimately scaled, the duo’s works were well suited to inaugurate this gallery’s new digs—a converted residence in Shanghai’s former French Concession.

Pauline J. Yao is an independent curator and art historian based in Beijing and San Francisco. She is a founder of the Arrow Factory in Beijing and an adjunct lecturer in the arts-administration department of the city’s Central Academy of Fine Arts.