Shenzhen

Song Dong, Father and Son in the Former Ancestral Temple, 1998, three-channel video, color, sound; 6 minutes, 11 minutes, 4 minutes 50 seconds. Installation view. From “An Exhibition About Exhibitions.” Photo: Zhang Ying.

Song Dong, Father and Son in the Former Ancestral Temple, 1998, three-channel video, color, sound; 6 minutes, 11 minutes, 4 minutes 50 seconds. Installation view. From “An Exhibition About Exhibitions.” Photo: Zhang Ying.

“An Exhibition About Exhibitions”

Song Dong, Father and Son in the Former Ancestral Temple, 1998, three-channel video, color, sound; 6 minutes, 11 minutes, 4 minutes 50 seconds. Installation view. From “An Exhibition About Exhibitions.” Photo: Zhang Ying.

With “An Exhibition about Exhibitions: Displaying Contemporary Art in the 1990s,” curator Wu Hung—OCAT Institute’s executive director—revisits twelve experimental exhibitions organized in China during the ’90s. This marks the first time these formerly underground and marginalized shows have been brought into an official art institution, and is the latest link in a chain of research projects, exhibitions, and publications initiated by Wu and the institute to address the art history of a decade when artists longed to inspire social interaction through public exhibitions, but also hoped to retain their experimental edge. The result is distinctly original. The first part of the show consists of documentary materials, while the second, titled “Canceled: An Exhibition about an Exhibition,” addresses the circumstances surrounding the 1998 show “It’s Me,” curated by Leng Lin and intended for the Imperial Ancestral Temple next to the Forbidden City, but called off at the last minute.

“Canceled” is not a faithful replication of “It’s Me,” but instead is an installation examining the interactions between artists, audience, and artworks. When “It’s Me” was canceled, documentary film director Wu Wenguang commented, “All the people are outside, all the works are inside.” Wu Hung’s curatorial premise begins with precisely this thwarted spatial relationship. A large screen divides the exhibition hall into two spaces. The interior portion of the room beyond the screen simulates the inner courtyard of the Ancestral Temple’s main hall, with the wall and three pillars painted in the crimson of ancient architecture. Song Dong’s work Father and Son in the Former Ancestral Temple, 1998, is projected on the pillars, but the rest of the space is completely empty. On the central screen, Wu Wenguang’s Diary: Snow, Nov. 21, 1998, 1999, is screened in an endless loop. The director recorded the events on the day of the exhibition’s cancellation from a subjective viewpoint, and most of the footage focuses on the artists in the square outside the Ancestral Temple. Watching the documentary while standing on the external side of the screen provides a sense of standing where the artists stood that day, and the screen itself is a proxy for the temple’s closed door, delineating interior and exterior architectural spaces and keeping the artists’ work separate from the public. Wu Hung uses layering to create a minimalist but rich unified space. This curatorial concept is not unrelated to his many years of research on ancient Chinese burial spaces.

By contrast, the archival part of the exhibition is laid out in a more rational, objective way. An abundance of photographs, drawings, invitations, and publications—including video footage of “Post Sense Sensibility” (1999) and “Supermarket” (1999) by artist Kan Xuan—document the twelve seminal exhibitions. Collectively, these materials conjure the creative atmosphere in which artists labored in the ’90s, give each exhibition its own historical context, and suggest connections to the current scene. For example, what are the shared discourses of resistance in “Wildlife” (1998), “Post Sense-Sensibility,” and “Heiqiao Night Away,” a 2013 exhibition that’s been described as a “sixty-day run of anarchy?” What phylogenetic relationships exist between “Supermarket,” cocurated by Xu Zhen, and the model of corporate operations and self-branding that he adopted after 2009? How should we understand the blurred boundaries between the official and nonofficial realms of art production?

While emphasizing the importance of experimental exhibitions in the ’90s, Wu Hung also attempts to raise awareness about the disappearance and the disorganization of exhibition history in China. To address this problem, OCAT recently launched a related archive project on exhibitions and ephemeral displays of Chinese contemporary art in the ’90s. This exhibition is therefore not the conclusion of Wu’s research, but rather a departure point for an ongoing endeavor. Its larger significance is to inspire others to excavate and organize materials from the history of Chinese contemporary art; it is through the reexamination of these materials that an art history of the recent past becomes possible.

Mia Yu

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.