Yu Guo, Rock and Cliff: The Geological Surface of Horn Town, 2019, video, color, sound, 47 minutes 20 seconds. From “A Geography of Resistance.”

Yu Guo, Rock and Cliff: The Geological Surface of Horn Town, 2019, video, color, sound, 47 minutes 20 seconds. From “A Geography of Resistance.”

“A Geography of Resistance”

After Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the critic David Orr remarked that Dylan might be great, but he doesn’t write poems. The recent video-art exhibition “A Geography of Resistance” might invite a similar charge; that while its intention—to cry out for China’s dispossessed—was good, it failed as art. Take the first work on display, Lo Lai Lai Natalie’s The Days Before Silent Spring—Prelude, 2010–19, a documentary about the artist’s decade-long efforts operate a farm in Hong Kong’s New Territories. The curator, Li Jia, argues that Lo’s endeavor recalls earlier, indigenous forms of natural stewardship that prevailed before mainland settlement—but it also risks seeming like an ad for some locavore food co-op. Or take Shenzhen Dolls, 2019–, a performance, recorded on video, in which the artist Nut Brother rents a tractor crane and operates it like a mall claw machine, clamping stuffed animals that belonged to children forcibly evicted from the city—supposedly China’s most migrant-friendly—and dropping them outside city limits. Nut Brother has described his work as “raising awareness”; an ungenerous viewer might call it an Instagram-friendly social-justice stunt.

Other works, however, challenged these misgivings. One example was Yu Guo’s Rock and Cliff: The Geological Surface of Horn Town, 2019, a video essay revealing the ways in which one of Szechuan’s “ancient heritage sites” is a Potemkin village. Yu travesties footage of the site’s unveiling: He draws football replay arrows to expose how “audience members” are actually plants; he superimposes a golden spiral on footage of performers parachuting into the celebration to mock their grandiosity; and he gives a tongue-in-cheek lesson about rock formation to hint at Horn Town’s unnatural origins. His work shows that critique can be discursive and virtuosic—and that this is only one option among many.

But on a deeper level, accusations of aesthetic banality feel disingenuous. After all, the “apolitical” veneer of much post-Olympics Chinese art could easily be seen not as reflecting the rarified sensibilities of a new generation of “formalists” but as a surrender to the demands of newer, savvier Chinese collectors, who want sound investments, not government harassment. Taikang Space itself is owned by one of China’s largest insurance companies—its founder married Mao Tse-tung’s granddaughter—adding another valence to the word resistance in the exhibition’s title. The show staged late capitalism’s central dilemma: How does one fight a beast from inside its belly?

In addition to institutional conflicts of interest, good old censorship beset the show. Censors removed Hao Jingban’s work about government-led evictions in 2017 Beijing, as well as several “sensitive” sections in Xu Tan’s multichannel video installation Keywords Lab: Water, Soil, Territory II, 1996–2018. But more telling than what the bureaucrats flagged was what they missed: Cong Feng’s Stratum 2: The Asthenosphere, 2019, was a constellation of film stills, one of which depicts an empty Chang’an Boulevard near Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989, the site where Tank Man took his stand. Looking at it, I was reminded of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656—of the faces of the sovereign and his queen in a mirror, and of the strange knowledge that we, postmonarchy, are peering at it in their place. Cong’s work accomplishes something similar. The gaze it invites is not that of the liberal human-rights watchdog or even the art critic, but that of the philistine bureaucrats, who are in turn taunted for failing to recognize the history they are tasked with suppressing. Such oversight reminds us that authority is always blinder and more fragile than we might suppose. That we can see, at times, what it cannot see is proof that even in the most dangerous times, resistance is possible.