View of “Little Movements,” 2011.

View of “Little Movements,” 2011.

“Little Movements”

He Xiangning Art Museum

View of “Little Movements,” 2011.

“Little Movements: Self-Practice in Contemporary Art” is an ongoing project initiated by curator and critic Carol Yinghua Lu and her husband, curator and artist Liu Ding. Because the endeavor encompasses so many ideas simultaneously and has appeared in many incarnations, ranging from artworks to publications to exhibitions, its concept is perhaps best approached in terms of what it is not. The “Little Movements” of the title are not political movements, nor are they mini art movements. The practices referred to are not linked by a common ideology, and the curators don’t attempt to draw parallels between them. “Little Movements” is a collection of art practices whose autonomy is itself grounds for inclusion.

Some of the participants are engaged in work that speaks to the general public, such as the e-flux project unitednationsplaza, but others address very specific contexts. The “Zhuhai Meeting” organized by Wang Guangyi and Shu Qun in 1986 exemplifies this: Laying the groundwork for the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition, this gathering brought together avant-garde groups across China to discuss their nascent practices for the first time. Represented here by a detailed chart of the participants and a 1986 newspaper report displayed like a relic in a glass case, it provides a necessary counterpoint to the fetishization and mythologizing of the birth of the Chinese avant-garde.

As an extension of Liu’s series of “Conversations,” 2010–, in which private discussions with artists, curators, and critics were recorded and then exhibited in the form of written, photographic, and sound documentation, the contemporary participants in “Little Movements” are featured in video-recorded roundtable discussions, one for each group, with the two curators, assistant curator Su Wei, and several others. In this exhibition, these recorded conversations were presented along with photographs and other documents. These discussions, recording the curators’ attempt to capture what they call a “spirit of self-practice” in art today, explore how each group in “Little Movements” maintains a sustained sense of self-questioning and reflexivity that allows it to exist in a self-sufficient enclave.

The curators seem concerned primarily with how new value systems can be established independently of existing power structures and, ultimately, how self-reflexive practice can engender new creative directions. Yet working within existing power structures wouldn’t disqualify these varied art practitioners from being seen as autonomous or critical. And though it includes artists’ groups ranging from Beijing’s HomeShop to Copenhagen Free University, the exhibition does not purport to be an all-encompassing examination of collectives today. In fact, Lu and Liu reject the notion of linear history altogether, as well as any pretense of objective methodological investigation; as the curators informally stated, the artists involved here are simply some of those they have come in contact with through their travels. But such a naked subjectivity, as it gains momentum and inevitably snowballs toward self-institutionalization, seems to come with its own trappings of power. How will “Little Movements” maintain the continuous critical self-inquiry and reflexivity that it esteems?

Although a museum show on the Chinese mainland (as opposed to Hong Kong) necessarily eschews overt politics, the curators seem to have subversive goals, searching for alternatives to existing art-world power structures or historical narratives, yet they are awkwardly aware of the pitfalls of establishing anything in its place. “The Anxiety of Self-Definition,” one of the four broad categories of “Little Movements,” encapsulates the ambiguity surrounding the exhibition itself, a work in progress, one that resists classification. (The other categories are “Individual Systems,” “Away from the Crowds: Unexpected Encounters,” and “What Is Knowledge.”) The exhibition at OCT was more like a tool kit than organized research, charting a loose theoretical framework that informs art practice, but is defined only through outside references. This collection of movements seems poised to legitimize certain practices, or to give way to something else entirely.

Lee Ambrozy