Second Guangzhou Triennial

1st Asia Biennial / 5th Guangzhou Triennial

While the First Guangzhou Triennial, in 2002, provided viewers with a sweeping overview of creative output by the so-called first generation of China’s avant-garde artists, the second is an attempt to reconfigure the relationship between the triennial and its context. Integral to the exhibition is the museum’s location in the Pearl River Delta, or PRD, a cluster of southern Chinese cities, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou, that have experienced a wild growth spurt since the ’70s and whose congested urban sprawl represents both opportunity and decadence. To facilitate exchanges among artists, architects, and other cultural workers from both inside and outside the PRD, cocurators Hou Hanru, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Guo Xiaoyan formulated the triennial as a series of “D-Labs,” workshops dedicated to investigating a range of topics pertinent to the Delta that would germinate the exhibition’s content. Since November 2004, five D-Labs and several related public presentations have been held in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, mixing an epic cast of art-world players and brand name architects—from Rirkrit Tiravanija and Pierre Huyghe to Rem Koolhaas—with dozens of artists from throughout China. The exhibition itself was meant to represent another of these exchanges, rather than a terminus.

Though the triennial’s unwieldy full title, “Beyond: An Extraordinary Space of Experimentation for Modernization,” suggests both a spatial and temporal extension into uncharted territory, visitors first had to contend with the immediate experience of the artworks within and surrounding the museum, which was sometimes less than satisfying. One mistake was to allow Hong Kong artists/architects Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix, working under the name Map–Office, to cover parts of the museum floor with an irregular patchwork of slightly raised wooden platforms that visitors were forced to stumble over as they moved through the show. This may have increased viewers’ awareness of their own navigation strategies within the museum but only by preventing them from looking anywhere but at their own feet. Efforts to include evidence of previous D-Labs were equally disappointing: There is nothing less stimulating than photographs of a conference one didn’t attend.

Thankfully, there were many works included in (or created for) the exhibition whose strengths overshadowed these curatorial missteps. Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong’s Fastigium, 2005, used bamboo and netting to add a full-scale minaret to the museum’s roof, evoking Guangzhou’s overlooked history as a trading port for Muslim Arab merchants during the eighth century and turning discussions about globalization within the PRD toward something tangible. Beijing artist Liu Ding tapped into the opulence and desperation fueled by uneven economic development throughout China. His Samples from the Transition—Fantasies of Small Potatoes, 2005, were items such as a globe, a gun, and a Chinese banknote, all covered with glittering plastic jewels, spotlighted, and displayed behind glass. Yan Lei’s “Color Rings,” 2004–2005, were hypnotic, large-scale paintings composed with the help of computer software that generates concentric circles of radiant color—simultaneously magnetic and dizzying. India’s Raqs Media Collective presented With Respect to Residue: 4 Illuminated Maps for the Pearl River Delta, 2005, a table lit from within and illustrated with four maps of the region that poetically located the impact of global trade through everyday, incidental detritus, such as peanut shells and tea bags. Chen Shaoxiong’s video installation, Ink City, 2005, used animated ink painting to re-create the sensation of walking through a PRD metropolis—an antidote to the sterile architectural plans presented elsewhere within the exhibition.

The notion of a decentralized international exhibition is nothing new. What separates this triennial from others is the emphasis on sustainability—the effort to build an enduring infrastructure for creative life within the PRD. Its long-term impact on the region remains to be seen.

David Spalding