Liu Wei, Merely a Mistake II, 2010, mixed media. From the 8th Shanghai Biennale.

Liu Wei, Merely a Mistake II, 2010, mixed media. From the 8th Shanghai Biennale.

8th Shanghai Biennale

Various Venues

Liu Wei, Merely a Mistake II, 2010, mixed media. From the 8th Shanghai Biennale.

The Shanghai Biennale is charged with a significant task: to harmonize the expectations of professional and international audiences with the tastes of a broader local public, all while conforming to Ministry of Culture’s requirements. By the time its eighth incarnation opened last year, the biennial had a reputation as China’s most significant international art show, the most important benchmark for China’s role in the global art-cultural sphere. This prominence was reflected last year in a new opening date, in October, that intentionally distanced the biennial from the commercial influence of the city’s art fair. This incarnation of the event bypassed “foreign” curators; it was curated instead by a team led by Gao Shiming, a young theoretician at the China Academy of Art and a cocurator of “Say Farewell to Post-Colonialism,” the final Guangzhou Triennial (the event is now defunct), in 2008. Gao’s thesis for the show was based on Brechtian notions of theatricality and the idea of the exhibition as a site of cultural production, facilitating multiple possibilities, with the ultimate aim of confronting the discursive dominance of global capitalism. The presiding metaphor of “rehearsal” lent the biennial its title.

The strongest feature of “Rehearsal” was, in fact, its theoretical basis—Gao’s earnest attempt to establish new ideas uniquely situated in an ascendant Asia. Also of interest were the preliminary events that took place across geographic-temporal boundaries, including installments in Vietnam and New York (via Performa) and projects with Indian artists and social thinkers as well as the Croatian curatorial collective WHW. The schizophrenic main exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum was arguably the Achilles’ heel of the biennial; here, the clarity of Gao’s curatorial strategy was diluted by incongruent inclusions that can only be explained as results of coexisting agendas less noble than his attempt to advance Chinese art theory in the international sphere.

The exhibition was divided into four “acts.” Act 1, the Ho Chi Minh Trail project, was treated like a star-studded miniseries within the biennial: It involved several artists—among them MadeIn Company (represented by their “CEO,” Xu Zhen), Wu Shanzhuan, Chen Chieh-jen, and Wang Jianwei—walking the historic trail with Gao, discussing theory and collectively examining their own artistic practice in daily struggle sessions. The group of artists presented their artistic-intellectual output in Beijing’s Long March Space last September, and they were allotted the entire first floor in Shanghai, where they showed new works, made for this show, spread across the floor; the surrounding walls were hung with blown-up slogans such as WE HAVE YET TO THOROUGHLY EXAMINE THE ESSENCE OF ACTION and TAKING ON THE BURDEN OF HISTORY IS NOT AN ACT OF RETRACING HISTORICAL MEMORY, BUT A RESTLESS ATTEMPT TO POSITION THE PRESENT IN HISTORY. Prominent among these works, MadeIn’s forest of found images transferred onto canvas and displayed on wooden pickets made the most sense for me when I spied a visitor smiling for a head shot in front of a canvas painted with a pile of US dollars. Elsewhere, the sprawling polyhedronic wooden armatures of Liu Wei’s Merely a Mistake II, 2010, continued the artist’s formalist aesthetic, although a more striking prequel had previously been installed at the Long March Space.

Raqs Media Collective’s Fragments from a Communist Latento, 2010, neatly encapsulated this biennial’s impotent thrust: In this work, light boxes showing fragmented statements, as an antonym to the manifesto, were displayed in tandem with texts and diagrams contributed by Chinese intellectuals and artists (along with an introduction by Gao), the most fascinating of which was a contribution from Chan Koonchung, the author of the 2009 dystopian science-fiction novel Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 (The Prosperous Time: China 2013). It begins: “Irony with Chinese characteristics—not only could contemporary art play safe by playing ‘revolutionary,’ it could also conveniently become a public relations ally to the official ideology.” His remains the keenest critical observation on “Rehearsal” in any language so far, and it hung in plain view amid the curatorial imbroglio, in English only.

Lee Ambrozy