Shanghai

Enrique Ježik, In Hemmed-in Ground, 2018, steel, cardboard. Installation view. Photo: Jiang Wenyi.

Enrique Ježik, In Hemmed-in Ground, 2018, steel, cardboard. Installation view. Photo: Jiang Wenyi.

12th Shanghai Biennale

Power Station of Art 上海当代艺术博物馆

Enrique Ježik, In Hemmed-in Ground, 2018, steel, cardboard. Installation view. Photo: Jiang Wenyi.

EVER SINCE the Shanghai Biennale moved to the Power Station of Art in 2012, monumental works have been a mainstay of the event. Take, for example, Huang Yong Ping’s nearly sixty-foot-tall cast-iron tower in that first edition in the former coal energy plant, or MouSen+MSG’s immersive “storytelling machine,” The Great Chain of Being-Planet Trilogy, in 2016.

So it is refreshing to enter the cavernous main hall and find a relatively understated display: Enrique Ježik’s In Hemmed-in Ground, 2018. The installation consists of sixteen Chinese characters, each constructed humbly from cardboard and steel, together reading, ONE STEP FORWARD TWO STEPS BACK / TWO STEPS FORWARD ONE STEP BACK. The couplet nods to the biennial’s title, “Proregress,” a word borrowed from the American poet e. e. cummings, but it also holds particular significance for the local audience, speaking to the widely felt ambivalence regarding the economic reforms in the nation that began forty years ago. The so-called Reform and Opening-Up policy has transformed China, as the country’s diverse population has experienced the simultaneous drawbacks and benefits of modernization and globalization. To drive the point home, the cool white glow of Claire Fontaine’s Evil / Good, 2017—a light box in the shape of an Apple logo without the bite—illuminates Ježik’s paean to stuttering advancement. 

Hsu Che-Yu, Lacuna, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 40 minutes 45 seconds.

However, for curator Cuauhtémoc Medina and his team (Yukie Kamiya, Wang Weiwei, and María Belén Sáez de Ibarra), Chinese anxieties are a secondary concern. Their principal focus is, instead, a global “age of historical ambivalence,” whose complexities and contradictions they seek to decipher through artworks that serve as “omniscient objects.” Some criticized the curatorial vision as vague and unoriginal. Such objections are probably fair. But the show’s surefooted pacing and eloquent installation make it more successful than others in the international handwringing mode. “Proregress” features a manageable sixty-seven artists from twenty-six countries, nearly a third of whom hail from Latin America; a highlight is Mexican architect Frida Escobedo’s excellent exhibition design, which gently steers viewers through the three massive floors. Comprising a series of self-contained rooms linked by doorways and corridors, the layout is especially well suited to the display of films and videos. Each piece receives ample space in its own gallery, while leaving open the possibility of dialogue among them.

Still from Allora & Calzadilla’s The Great Silence, 2014, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 32 seconds.

Conversation among works was particularly evident on the first floor. In Hsu Che-Yu’s Lacuna, 2018, expressionless animated figures wander against photographic backdrops of an apartment, a street corner, and a beach, while a voice-over mixes family stories with local news reports of gruesome murders that took place in the same locales. The feeling of stifling claustrophobia, at once physical and psychological, contrasts sharply with the airy elegance of Suki Seokyeong Kang’s performance and video installation Black Mat Oriole, 2016–17, which activates traditional Korean court choreography and musical notation with the abstract language of forms and gestures. Yet the two works, situated in separate rooms across a corridor from one another, nevertheless share a keen engagement with the effects of cultural or environmental conditions and constraints. The sense of containment is also echoed in Nadim Abbas’s stoic furniture sets, which are placed sporadically throughout the building, and where, with luck, you could run into actors in the role of Japanese hikikomori

Still from Allora & Calzadilla’s The Great Silence, 2014, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 32 seconds.

On the second floor, artists grapple with a host of contemporary evils—via Michael Rakowitz’s papier-mâché replicas of looted and destroyed artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq, in Baghdad, and Allora & Calzadilla’s The Great Silence, 2014, dedicated to the critically endangered Amazona vittata parrot, among others. But the third floor swerves into half-serious self-reflexivity. Seth Price’s Redistribution, 2007–; the video “Not as Trivial as You Think”: Shanghai Art Quiz, 2018, by the Hong Kong–based duo Clara & Gum (C&G); and a minisurvey by Alicia Mihai Gazcue, a fictitious Uruguayan artist, all reflect on art’s production and reception. For local audiences, some of these works may be perplexing. Take Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, 2018, a weighty book and set of charts that trace political donations from board members of museums across the United States. In this context, Chinese viewers might easily conflate Fraser’s institutional critique with the Communist Party’s propaganda rhetoric—namely, its cynical tendency to accuse the Western world of being no less troubled than their own. 

The show’s surefooted pacing and eloquent installation make it more successful than others in the international hand-wringing mode.

A fitting emblem of this navel-gazing is Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo’s Nothing About Nothing, 2018. His performance on the Power Station’s ground floor consists of the artist or volunteers painting and repainting a wall white over the course of the show. Meant to illustrate the “redundancy of the institutional conditions for critique,” the work also thematizes the blandness of biennials that obsess over their own conditions: a blank white surface, done again and again into oblivion.

Du Keke is the editor of Artforum.com.cn and a writer and translator based in Beijing.