Feng Lin, One Million a Year Plan, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Unlived by What Is Seen,” 2014–15.

Feng Lin, One Million a Year Plan, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Unlived by What Is Seen,” 2014–15.

“Unlived by What Is Seen”

Feng Lin, One Million a Year Plan, 2013, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “Unlived by What Is Seen,” 2014–15.

“Unlived by What Is Seen,” the awkward and ambiguous English version of this exhibition’s Chinese title, may suggest a kind of annulment of visual experience. A more literal translation would be “(Artists’) Actions Beyond Visual Production.” In other words, one should not expect to find any conventional qualifying tropes or definitions of the art object in this show. “Unlived by What Is Seen” recalls Harald Szeemann’s legendary exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form.” Sharing a similar impulse to act against the materialization, commercialization, and gentrification of artistic practice, the curators sought out artists whose practices are not only inspired by their lived experience but also act to restore artistic practice to its origin and greater context, everyday life.

Noting the ever-increasing materialism of the contemporary art world in China since 2008, the three organizers—artist duo Sun Yuan and Peng Yu and independent curator Cui Cancan—as well as the thirty-four artists (including collectives and institutions) participating in the show express a thoroughgoing rejection of visual production. Here, this stance had to be communicated through individual actions, storytelling, relics of actions, or other forms of documentation. For instance, the recently disbanded group HomeShop, which produced very little but engaged in wide-ranging discussions on a radically democratic basis between 2008 and 2014, reinstalled the “evidence” of their space in the hutong, or alleyways, of Beijing city center, where artists, designers, and thinkers came together via multiple series of small-scale activities, interventions, and documentary gestures. These conversations and events examined the ways in which working together in daily life within a community might allow for micro–political activism.

Video interviews with the artists form an important part of the show. For instance, the curators approached the former video artist Li Yongbin after he had decided to give up art and leave Beijing to undertake the physical labor of farming. The forty-minute video—edited down from hours of conversation—covers Li’s personal life, his past art practice, and his decision to abandon it. Another artist, Hu Yinping, tells the story of how she secretly photographed her parents having sex. Without any means of evaluating such projects through conventional artistic criteria, some viewers might wonder if this is even really an art exhibition. “Unlived by What Is Seen” demands that we appreciate artistic practices based on individual stories and events in the lives of these artists, or on the legends they may leave behind.

The presentation of such intangible and uncommodified projects in three commercial art galleries seems contradictory. That tension came to a head on the show’s first day. It is well known that Gu Dexin concluded his artistic career nearly six years ago with his solo exhibition “2009-05-02,” at Galleria Continua. Since then, he has refused to discuss his work or to participate in any exhibition. Invited to take part in “Unlived by What Is Seen,” he neither accepted nor declined. However, an area was left empty in the same gallery to represent his absence. By coincidence, it’s the same spot where one can still see a mark that happens to have been left behind from the installation of “2009-05-02.” On the opening day of “Unlived by What Is Seen,” the notorious performance artist and exhibition crasher Istvan Kantor, who had previously vandalized Jeff Koons’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, cut his arm and used his blood to make a large X in the space reserved for Gu Dexin. One might have considered this impromptu and uninvited performance as a sort of bonus, furthering the aim of the exhibition to emphasize the artists’ subjectivity and freedom of expression. On the contrary, the gallery and curators asked Kantor to clean off his mark and then to leave the premises. But those who witnessed his performance will probably never unlive what was seen.

Fiona He