Musquiqui Chihying, The Alp, 2014, ink-jet print, 39 1/2 x 59". From “A Chemical Love Story.”

Musquiqui Chihying, The Alp, 2014, ink-jet print, 39 1/2 x 59". From “A Chemical Love Story.”

“A Chemical Love Story”

Musquiqui Chihying, The Alp, 2014, ink-jet print, 39 1/2 x 59". From “A Chemical Love Story.”

“A Chemical Love Story” was a visual and conceptual polyphony displaying the work of nine Chinese artists, all under forty, working in a wide variety of media, including video, installation, painting, photography, and performance, and drawing on international experiences and approaches thanks to education abroad and internationally oriented résumés. The show’s starting point was Alexander and Ann Shulgin’s book, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1991), which focuses on psychoactive phenylethylamine chemical derivatives, notably those that act as psychedelics and are associated with euphoria. As the curatorial statement explains, the hallucinatory experiences induced by these drugs stimulate the cerebral cortex directly, producing a parallel reality. Yet this second reality is merely a shadow destined to fade into disappointment and emptiness. The same delusion is generated by digital technology, organized collective participation, and virtual interconnectivity, all of which are likewise destined to end in disappointment—as are artistic practices.

Some of the artists showed works that were subtler, whether in form, content, or overall sensibility. Carla Chan’s series “Clouded White,” 2017, was of carbon powder on paper, and appeared transient, delicate, while Shi Zhiying presented, among the other smaller works on view, Silver Bow, 2017, a large painting featuring a simple vessel with blurred contours. Han Qingzhen showed abstract paintings dominated by pale colors, lines, and geometric structures that were all deconstructed in some way. There were also more direct works, such as Liu Zhangbolong’s documentary photographs of laboratory equipment, and Liao Fei’s matter-oriented pieces, such as Gravity Material, 2017, made of a board and black tape, and Material No. 5, a painting from the same year done with vigorous brushstrokes.

Set in the mountains of Switzerland, Musquiqui Chiying’s two works titled The Alp, 2014 (a three-channel HD video and related photograph) are centered on a young man seeking a remedy for insomnia. The protagonist builds his bed in different places—in a meadow, in a tree, under a streetlamp, and inside a horse stable—creating bizarre situations until he finally finds peace of mind in an atomic-bomb shelter. The artist’s The Jog, 2014 (a two-channel HD video), takes place in a commodity-dominated supermarket, where an apathetic cashier watches a man jog on the conveyor belt at the checkout counter, as if he were on a treadmill. Both works’ protagonists seek an escape, whether through contemplation or action, but the claustrophobic mood of the supermarket contrasts with the expansiveness of the Swiss Alps. An ironic yet disturbing element invades what we consider to be familiar. The human body and human presence are entangled in new strains of logic through a series of nonsensical actions, imbued with a sinister sense of the absurd. A similar humor pervades Yorkson’s To Job: Wars are the things that are only in between God and Satan, 2017, an installation reminiscent of the stained-glass windows of medieval churches. Here, the biblical figures we might expect are replaced with the French children’s book character Barbapapa and a cartoon child.

Liu Yujia’s Black Ocean, 2016, is a video mixing fact and fiction, reality and mirage, that gradually leads the viewer to discover a society where human presence is but an accessory, and a city where “the invisible determines the visible.” Liu captures oil refineries, where the only signs of life are the monotonous movements of machines; these coexist with barren and apparently uncontaminated landscapes of sand and rocks, where animals appear like visions. As the artist states in the video, this is “a primitive society of the future.” Yao Qingmei’s Sculpting 100 Euros, 2014, mixes performance and the readymade, presenting video footage of the artist rubbing a banknote. By rubbing it continuously, the artist left a mark on the note, and thus created something new: Artistic value adds to economic value. The bill was later auctioned as a sort of “living sculpture.”

Some of these artists take an approach that might seem almost juvenile; others work in more oblique and nuanced ways. But whatever their methods, they are united by a common purpose recalling that of a seeker in love with potent psychoactives: to transcend the conventions and confines of everyday life.

Manuela Lietti