Dai Chenlian, Sketch 12, 2017, watercolor on paper, 10 x 13".

Dai Chenlian, Sketch 12, 2017, watercolor on paper, 10 x 13".

Dai Chenlian

Dai Chenlian, Sketch 12, 2017, watercolor on paper, 10 x 13".

Dai Chenlian’s exhibition “A Bright Moon Surging upon Tide” took the viewer into an unfamiliar realm. A giant boat made of paper and wood stood toward one end of the gallery; black lines and dashes embellished the floor and columns, as if measuring and dividing the space; landscapes were drawn directly on the walls; paper signs with words such as WATER and ROCK sat on the ground or hung from ropes; and a few paintings and readymade objects occupied various corners. The entire exhibition was almost black and white, and felt like the interior of another, bigger boat resembling the one in the space. The layout simultaneously reduced and reinforced the space as a white cube. All this made more sense if one realized that the artist’s modus operandi is to turn a sketch of his design for an exhibition directly into its appearance as an action in real time.

Thus, the exhibition opened with the performance of its making: Stage fog turned the space into a sea on which the boat seemed to sail. Dai moved diagonally from one end of the gallery to the other, violently interacting with the objects at hand and barking out incomprehensible phrases about spatial relations. His hysterical actions sharply contrasted with the clarity and cleanliness of the exhibition space. He appeared to be following his own commands, but not accurately every time. That slippage between plan and result accords with the artist’s long-standing interest in turning errors into artworks.

“A Bright Moon Surging upon Tide” was the most recent manifestation of Dai’s ongoing Family Theater Project (2013–). Each iteration involves a performance based on the personality, habitual gestures, accent, and other personal traits of an individual subject. These have ranged from members of Dai’s family and close artist friends to an unlicensed taxi driver. “A Bright Moon Surging upon Tide” was slightly different in that it had a collective rather than an individual protagonist—the entire team of A+ Contemporary, the Shanghai offshoot of the Taipei gallery Asia Art Center—and the process here was ambiguously envisioned by Dai as a marine journey.

Dai considers his practice to be essentially documentarian in nature. He hopes to reveal people’s dilemmas and plights within the context of the bigger social picture by painting a sort of theatrical portrait. Engraved within the happenings, movements, role playing, and objects imaginatively used as props that subsequently subsist as an installation are individual expressions left behind by the ever-changing social environment in which everything orbits around economic development. Dai mobilizes costumes, sound, and actions, extending trivial narratives to explore broader sensible systems. For instance, his last Family Theater rendition at the Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Arts portrayed a young woman who dreams of being a fashion designer but is under intense family and social pressure. Such works aim at discovering and recording subtle and delicate overtones that are usually neglected by more commonly used languages.

With a touch of institutional critique, “A Bright Moon Surging upon Tide” offered organic and complex perspectives through which viewers could attempt to navigate the artist’s creative process; it also cast a critical eye on the conventional exhibition ecologies of contemporary art. The exhibition was both the base of a performance and the traces left in its wake. Dai transformed the gallery space into the setting of an absurdist play, a one-man show that simultaneously appalled, confused, and entertained the crowd. And even though it borrowed approaches from experimental theater, Dai’s site-specific performance and installation nonetheless did not seem burdened by theatrical traditions. His practice treats all kinds of media and materials equally, producing a Gesamtkunstwerk that incorporates stories of the microscopic and the unheard.

Hanlu Zhang