View of “Shi Qing,” 2015. Photo: Xianglin Luo.

View of “Shi Qing,” 2015. Photo: Xianglin Luo.

Shi Qing

Times Museum

View of “Shi Qing,” 2015. Photo: Xianglin Luo.

Shi Qing’s “Hinterland Project” was not a solo exhibition in the strictest sense: Some twenty participants were involved in the undertaking (2015–), which assumed a shape akin to activism or fieldwork. The presentation was divided into nine distinct units, each documenting a subproject engaging questions surrounding the relationship between globalization and the local. Including Night of the Courier, Bus Line, Interior River Courier Service, British Pavilion, Tea Factory, Mobile Plants, Huangbian Village Council, Crimson, and Gallery, these themes evolved from the artist’s proposition for a “taxonomy” of the issues systemic to contemporary art in China. The formulation for this mapping was an attempt to abandon what the artist has described as the oversimplified and interminable conceptual debate over contemporary art’s social potential, and to move beyond the postcolonial debates surrounding the notion of “Chinese contemporary art” as a category. “Hinterland Project” revealed a certain urgency in Shi’s quest to develop alternative conversations and modes of production.

The most lucid of the subprojects were Bus Line, Night of the Courier, and Interior River Courier Service. For each of these efforts, the artist posed as a sort of metaphorical courier, mobilizing a cultural exchange between the “hinterlands” and urban centers. Shi invited artists to engage in research specific to a respective region’s industry or artistic traditions in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Yueyang, Shenyang, and Chongqing, bridging the sites of practice and the conversations had in each via the exhibition space. Locality, as an essential component of the work, was ultimately seen to stem from universalist tendencies in contemporary art. It is hard to say whether this result was due to the larger, unifying framework of Shi’s exhibition, the artist’s method of working, or a more widespread motivation for the art industry to reinvent itself. “Chinese contemporary art” appeared to be deeply embedded in globalized discourses and modes of production. But “Hinterland Project” also featured some exceptional endeavors. For example, in Tea Factory and British Pavilion, the production, circulation, and consumption of tea leaves are shown to be analogous to contemporary art’s movement in the global market. Both works display Shi’s attempts to reveal the similarities between the ways in which these export commodities have become detached from the setting and context of their production. For 13 Hong Gallery, artists were invited to sketch the colonial architecture of their cities, thereby creating commodities not unlike the late-Qing equivalent of tourist export painting. This exercise forced the artists to closely observe the often-fraught relationship between subjective expression and one’s identification with postcolonialism. In Night of the Courier, a project in the factory town of Dongguan, Guangdong Province, Shi raised concerns of New Labor issues popularized by China’s New Left theorists. In each of these diverse efforts, art created friction with the social dimensions of specific phenomena.

The exhibition itself felt like a construction site: A sparse, industrial presentation conjured a sense of incompletion that resonated with the instability of Chinese social politics and its cultural spaces. The installation’s formal abstractions released a somewhat dystopian energy onto the practical realities of the subprojects. “Hinterland Project” intermingled various ideologies and modes of thinking—including, prominently, those of French spatial and political theorists and Situationist strategies—in ways that make it difficult to identify Shi’s theoretical standpoint. He insists the project wasn’t an attempt to provide answers for the complicated issues he takes up. Perhaps the exhibition was meant to echo Mao’s famous statement from his 1937 essay On Practice: “Practice begets knowledge. More practice begets more knowledge. This cycle repeats ad infinitum.”

Yang Beichen

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.