MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being–Planet Trilogy, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. From the 11th Shanghai Biennale.

MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being–Planet Trilogy, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. From the 11th Shanghai Biennale.

the 11th Shanghai Biennale

MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being–Planet Trilogy, 2016, mixed media. Installation view. From the 11th Shanghai Biennale.

In 1991, three young filmmakers from New Delhi were discussing the future of the world over a late-night game of carom (table billiards) when they decided to write their first script together. The resultant film, Half the Night Left, and the Universe to Comprehend, 1991, marked the formalization of the three-way partnership among Jeebesh Bagchi, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, and Monica Narula as Raqs Media Collective. Raqs’s artistic approach, involving cinematic, philosophical, social, and digital pursuits, as well as their cerebral force, often pulls other practitioners into their orbit and is fueled by shared conversation. If we recall that one of the meanings of “Raqs” is the acronym “Rarely Asked Questions,” their curatorial concept for the Eleventh Shanghai Biennale, “Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-Arguments, and Stories,” can be understood as an epic rendering of their preoccupation with sidestepping assumptions, a timely concern given that the exhibition opened immediately after Donald Trump’s election victory and Narendra Modi’s “economic emergency.”

Rather than posing riddles, as critics have sometimes accused them of doing, or allowing experimental proposals to unfold, as in their uneven “Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition” at the Devi Art Foundation, Gurugram, India, in 2012–13, Raqs responded to this behemoth of a biennial by selecting artists with a penchant for gently, astutely, and persistently probing subjects over time. This idea of durational or repeated conceptual engagement is enhanced by key architectural and spatial interventions, including seven “infracuratorial” subexhibitions by young curators from around the world, and four “Terminals,” each consisting of multiple works by a single artist. Of these, Marjolijn Dijkman’s Lunar Station, 2015, has a science-museum quality to it, with its large-scale video of a rotating asteroid, a pendulum marking circles in the sand, and multicolored miniatures of planets. Just as the installation’s formality is disrupted when it becomes the site of a multilingual discussion among physicists, artists, and philosophers, so the seepage of one world into another is echoed by one of its miniature motifs, in which a planet pours out its contents and connects with another nearby.

This curious little image is repeated in Srajana Kaikini’s infracuratorial project “Vectors of Kinship,” an assortment of notes, videos, and sculptures presenting questions on the nature of curating. Such hidden loops contrast with overt cyclical gestures, as we see in Yang Zhenzhong’s Disguise, 2015, a five-screen video installation showing masked factory workers performing industrial activities in slow motion, almost as balletic dances, split across successive floors of the venue. The lunar also returns in the gargantuan, immersive landscape The Great Chain of Being-Planet Trilogy, 2016, by ex-theater director MouSen+MSG: a deafening statement in an exhibition that otherwise quietly asks you to listen in and look again. Subtler relationships are often evoked between individual works positioned in particular constellations––such as Ivan Isaev’s infracuratorial “Leaving Room” of video installations connoting familiarity and uncertainty adjacent to a haunting series of self-portraits and landscapes by Zhou Zixi, collectively titled “I’m Leaving,” 2007–2009.

Somehow, these intended trajectories remain palpable without becoming explicit, as if part of a poetic, cinematic narrative that often blurs the distinctions between art, performance, and curating. This idea of interdisciplinarity was further embodied in the inaugural enactment of “Theory Opera,” 2016, which saw members of Raqs perform, laugh, and sing out excerpts from a conversation between Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein as imagined by science historian Jimena Canales. Combating a complacent or singular reading of the biennial, however, and reminding us to remain attuned to tangents and substories, are projects such as Lu Pingyuan’s “Story Series,” 2013, literary vignettes printed on mounted paper and sporadically encountered within exhibition corridors, and Chen Yun’s “51 Personae” (2016–17), a series of urban interventions that includes bakers lighting lanterns and a documentary on a transvestite dancer screened in a coffee shop. Rather than presenting us with a novel geopolitical, art-historical, or theoretical framework, Raqs have choreographed the biennial as they would an epic artwork: as a series of interconnected, unfolding, active ideas. In a similar vein to their first film, it ultimately asks us to wonder, as they told me, “how the imagination can sustain you in the mix of the everyday.”

Jyoti Dhar