Yang Shen, Garden Oddity, 2016, oil on canvas, 82 5⁄8 × 66 7⁄8".

Yang Shen, Garden Oddity, 2016, oil on canvas, 82 5⁄8 × 66 7⁄8".

“An Opera for Animals”

Rockbund Art Museum (RAM) 上海外滩美术馆

I once had a cat who sang. His name was Atmos, and he became quite famous. His meow was pure and tender but was also capable of different registers, allowing him to express a wide range of emotions. He also had quite a tonal range, preferring to greet arriving guests with a high-pitched yelp, but when engaged in conversation at more intimate moments, or when receiving physical affection from a human creature, he might yawp in a subtler tenor whose affirmation could quickly put the most troubled and confused spirit at ease. His success in the opera was naturally aided by the black coat of fur he had been blessed with, which gave the impression of a permanent evening suit; he was a gentlemanly creature of the sort the world no longer manufactures.

I thought about Atmos while I was visiting “An Opera for Animals,” curated by Cosmin Costinas, Hsieh Feng-Rong, Claire Shea, and Billy Tang as part of an ongoing exhibition series that originated with Para Site in Hong Kong and that recently parted the curtains on its latest iteration in Shanghai. This show was a massive undertaking, featuring some fifty-three artists. The works contained elements of theater, illusion, narrative, and mawkish drama that one associates with the medium of opera. Although hailed as the highest form of high drama, especially in its wildest moments of Wagnerian ambition, opera, we came to learn, does not necessarily require an extravagant mise-en-scène. Opera takes place every day, everywhere: in nature, on the street. Its stage can be, say, a desert island, or a shabby unrenovated apartment in Berlin (where, incidentally, Atmos most often appeared in his numerous accolade-winning performances). Tao Hui’s brilliant video Pulsating Atom, 2019, for instance, featured a woman in a pink floral dress who refuses to stand up: a sort of performed existential slump. We see her sprawled, operatically, across all sorts of environs, from a river-and-mountain landscape to a domestic kitchen, spouting poetico-philosophical ruminations, often with people executing choreographed dances in the foreground.

Humans were hardly the only animals in the exhibition. I was excited to immerse myself in Robert Zhao Renhui’s project Pulau Pejantan, 2016, about a zoological expedition to an isolated island off the coast of Borneo, where some 350 new tropical species were discovered between 2005 and 2009. In addition to photo documentation of the trip, the project includes wall text featuring an interview with Dr. Darrel Covman of the Institute of Island Biodiversity in the Asia Pacific, who was present on the expedition. “People usually think that if you visit a few islands near each other at the same region, a repetition of biodiversity will be evident,” says Dr. Covman. “This is actually not the case.” Actually, none of it is the case: The dramatic photographs of the deserted island with strange birdlike creatures wandering about are all the fictional creation of the artist—though I had to go home and google the topic to find this out. Ha-ha, the joke was on me. A dramatization, perhaps, of that ideal of narrative art in which, maybe just for a minute, you become so immersed that you believe the scenes unfolding before your eyes might be real. For more alternative zoology, there was Guo Fengyi’s astounding SARS Series, 2003: four renderings of anthropomorphic creatures at once demonic and cute, articulated in ink in painstakingly curved floral lines on rice-paper scrolls.

With additional memorable works by Adam Nankervis, Kelly Nipper, Trevor Yeung, and Carlo Nasisse and Yang Yuanyuan, “An Opera for Animals” evoked a temporary sense of wonder, magic, and numinous possibility, providing a much-needed release from the more depressing melodrama of these increasingly dark and politically uncertain times. I think Atmos would have approved.