PRINT February 2015


the Tenth Shanghai Biennale

Chen Chieh-jen, Empire’s Borders 1–2, 2008–2009, ink-jet print, 25 5/8 × 39 3/8".

THE PROTAGONIST of Jia Zhangke’s 2004 feature film The World dreams of freedom amid the earth’s most renowned sculptures, landmarks, and sites. Although it seems she has never left her country, she wanders daily through a miniature replica of the globe at the Beijing World Park. Biennials similarly attempt to refract the world through a prism of cultural production; the earliest such exhibition, the Venice Biennale, was born in the era of the all-encompassing international exposition. Of course, the world reflected by today’s biennials is no longer shaped by the modernist gaze of the rational, illuminated Crystal Palace of the first World’s Fair, but is instead seen as an endlessly expanding multiverse. In “Social Factory,” the main exhibition of the Tenth Shanghai Biennale, chief curator Anselm Franke, along with Cosmin Costinas, Liu Xiao, Freya Chou, Hila Peleg, and Nicholas Bussmann, focuses on the political reality of modern China’s own social engineering through works by local and international artists, extending Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s narrative of the “factory” from their 2000 book Empire, in which labor is no longer confined inside workshop walls but “dispersed across the unbounded social terrain.” In this social factory, commodity fetishism’s fanaticism for surplus value turns production of material into communal relations, so that economic and social production are no longer external to each other.

At the Power Station of Art, such connections are confronted by artists’ direct reference to socioeconomic realities. Chen Chieh-jen’s installation includes stills from his video Empire’s Borders I, 2008–2009, in which fallout from Taiwan’s political status is swept along in the undercurrents of globalized capital and the post–Cold War legacy through the rejection experienced by applicants for American and Taiwanese visas. Other works in the exhibition chart the social terrain with imaginative restagings, including Yun-Fei Ji’s handscroll The Three Gorges Dam Migration, 2009, which contrasts the reclusive intimacy of traditional Chinese landscape paintings with the faces of people whose villages have been submerged in the country’s colossal hydroelectric projects. Neil Beloufa’s satiric video La Domination du monde (World Domination), 2012, features amateur actors performing as heads of state discussing international events; not unlike in contemporary reality, their deliberations always end up in war. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, meanwhile, take another look at conflict by means of materiality. Traveling deep into war-torn Afghanistan, the duo exposed photographic paper on location to create The Day Nobody Died, 2008—producing random, abstract, sun-hewn images that avoid any representation of deadly conflict through their haunting immediacy, like Plato’s metaphor of memory as a wax tablet into which thoughts are pressed.

Attempting to dissolve any sense of modernism’s homogeneous social narrative, the biennial also gives voice to outside power, emphasizing China’s complexity through works that allude to historical or marginal periods and formats. These include Zhao Yannian’s 1974–94 woodcut illustrations for novels by Lu Xun, a key figure of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement, and the work of the self-taught abstract painter and poet Tang Chang, considered an outsider artist by his fellow Thai. Elsewhere, subtle references to hidden histories allow vernacular and anachronistic, even futuristic explorations of the social state. Liu Chuang’s Segmented Landscape, 2014, shows a row of Chinese window security grates with auspicious patterns carried over from the Yuan dynasty, whose common designs decorate the membrane between public space and privacy—a rare commodity in postrevolution China. Aleksandra Domanovićs The Dream, 2014, is a bronze-colored 3-D-printed hand clutching a yin-yang symbol, and refers—following the artist’s extended research into the former Yugoslavia—to an early prosthetic hand developed in 1960s Belgrade. This elusive object points to the layers of invention and appropriation of the sociopolitical near past and the cybernetic implications of the near future. And time is similarly nonlinear in Windows on the World (Part 2), 2014, in which small screens are neatly stacked to resemble the interior of a ’60s sci-fi space station like a scene from Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Ming Wong searches for images of the female astronaut in Chinese popular culture: Monitors show clips of the goddess Chang’e in the 1966 film Lady in the Moon; China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang; and the diva Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai’s dystopian thriller 2046 (2004).

“City Pavilions: Urban=Work & Shop”—a satellite event of the biennial curated by Zhu Ye—picks up on the previous Shanghai Biennale’s own appropriation of Venice’s format, in which nations were replaced by cities. This year, the pavilions move beyond the museum walls to Huaihai Road, a shopping district, and accentuate the late-capitalist temporality that blurs the line between leisure and labor in any city: Production doesn’t end when we get off work but continues around the clock.

The biennial thus continually reminds us that behind the various constructions of society lie the effects of capital—a force that has perhaps been nowhere as explosive as in twenty-first-century China—and which appears, from this exhibition, to augur a future state both tumultuous and deadening. The art gathered here suggests that in either scenario, the products of the social factory are to be handled with extreme care— perhaps even with a prosthetic hand.

The Tenth Shanghai Biennale runs through March 31.

Venus Lau is the consulting curator of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art.

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.