Monthly Archives: March 2013

I cross the road and avoid getting run over by the blink of an eye. No-one tells you that in China the cars, bikes, tricycles loaded up with 50 polystyrene boxes, bundles of sugar cane or fence panels, trams, buses et al, can turn right when the green man indicates your right of way. You have to learn this fast and remember it. Pearl Lam Gallery is my destination. It, like many galleries, restaurants, and much of Shanghai life, is hidden inside a building that reveals little about its contents. Some lives are lived in the streets ~ a communal existence where laundry is washed and dried in public view ~ and others are lived in the tower blocks.

Once inside, I am the only visitor in a gallery that is cool and cavernous, unfolding like so many more secrets. The ceiling is mirrored reflecting walls and floors made of stone. The artist holding her first significant solo exhibition here is Li Xiaojing and her show is called Beyond the Canvas. Her simple paintings relate to print-making, calligraphy, nature, urban life and historic Chinese visual culture (One Section, 2009, oil and pencil on canvas, is pictured). As I travel through the space my mind moves on from these pretty canvases to contemplating the experience of seeing the work of one artist in a solo presentation. I would have walked straight past these works in an art museum. Am I giving them a disproportionately large amount of my time? Or is this what all contemporary art requires and deserves?

One Section oil and pencil on canvas

At the Goethe Institute I encounter an exhibition that attempts to reconcile the interior/exterior existences in the city: ‘Waiting for an Artist solo project by Lu Pingyuan’ is the last in a series called Alternatives to Ritual curated by independent Shanghai-based curator Bijana Ciric. This programme of exhibitions, according to Ciric, was “inspired by the Institutional Critique – a 1960s’ movement in which artists expressed their opinions about art institutions and their conventions and rituals around staging exhibitions.” The institutional comment in this instance isn’t very clear, and, similarly to Li’s, this isn’t work that would attract and hold on to my attention if it was on display in an art museum.

Wet clothes are hung from corner to corner of the room and a washing machine is set into the wall to wash the clothes again as soon as they are dry. Humidity is supposedly the subject here, but Lu’s installation is conceptually confusing. I asked him ‘will you wash the clothes yourself?’ ‘No’, he said. ‘Someone else will’. That is the end of our conversation, so I do not get to ask whether these are his clothes and, if not, who or what exactly is waiting for him. However, the longer I spend with the work the more I appreciate the opportunity to consider the two parallel modes of being in Shanghai and how and when they converge.


On the other side of town, on my own again, away from the bustle of a so called private-view, my eyes helplessly submit to my sense of touch as I feel my way down a lightless corridor. The room that I find (pictured) at the end has no corners or other spacial clues. At the opposite side could be a full-size stage or cinema screen or it could be tiny like one of the doors in Alice’s Wonderland; the only players on the stage are pools of light and sound. Dutch artist Gabriel Lester’s slickly executed exhibition ‘Roxy’ is hosted by Minsheng Gallery. It mostly comprises two pieces, this one: How to Act, 1999 and Turn of the Events, 2012 (but also includes a lazy after-thought re-presentation of his piece Melancholia in Arcadia, 2011).

Minsheng Gallery have left traces of signage from the previous exhibition on the wall, making orientation in their relatively small space more difficult than it needs to be. I am told that in China everything moves fast; perhaps they were trying to move too quickly on this occasion. As I watch the shadows cast by light through a miniature landscape slip under the conveyer belt it naturally leads my thoughts back to the city. Lester is part-based here and is represented by Leo Xu Projects. His work is biennial-friendly (his CV includes Liverpool Biennial and dOCUMENTA 13) requiring only cinematic literacy – which should not be hard in a place where pirate DVDs cost 10RMB (£1).

To each of these solo exhibitions I give at least 30 minutes and I feel that I am rewarded for this output of time. I have a vague notion that visitors to large museums and art galleries spend around 30 seconds looking at each work – often less – but although I could find this quoted, no-one online seems to want to take authorship of this statistic. Whether or not it is true, it is believable. How can it be any other way? There is so much to see in an art museum that we visitors have the following choices: to revisit many times, to spend time only with one or more items of interest, or to sweep our eyes superficially across it all.

While reflecting on the difference between art museums and solo exhibitions, I come across an essay by Jane Norman called How to Look at Art, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in which she says: “people want to understand the artist’s message but have no confidence in their ability to do so”. She goes on to advise: “having learned to think in words, most of us must be re-educated to think in shapes and colors and spaces… communication with an artist must be through his work. It must be direct, not diluted by verbal translation.” It is not Norman’s intention to be anti-big-art-museums; however, it seems that she articulates a problem best solved by seeing an artist’s work in a solo presentation where interpretation and distractions are minimal.

Already at least one of the solo exhibitions I visited has closed. On the manic streets of Shanghai, food and retail outlets open and close on a daily basis; and galleries in tower blocks and artist districts change over their exhibitions at a pace that almost challenges them. Thankfully, to help to navigate the city’s cultural offer, local start-up Shanghai Detour produce a monthly printed art map. The map reveals a young but thriving arts ecology populated by a diverse selection of artists, venues, funders and agendas; but at the core of all of this activity are monographic presentations, offering direct access to an artist’s intention and soul. Only they give us adequate space and time to consider the artworks as objects before layering them with local meaning, global resonance and magical properties.

Whenever I go on abroad I can’t understand the language that is being spoken around me. Well, I once went to America, but in spite of all of the USA’s cultural exports, I suspect there was a cultural fluency I was still lacking (I have heard the USA and UK described as being ‘divided by a common language’). In the 21st century, having only one language sometimes feels like illiteracy. In China this is exacerbated by the fact that there are multiple languages; written and spoken Chinese are more autonomous than in some other languages and there are many dialects.

Recently I have had the experience of having my writing translated from English to Chinese. Relinquishing control, seeing your words hidden behind a code that you can’t yourself crack, is difficult; but the prospect of expanding my readership is really positive and exciting. Ideally, you can sit with the translator and talk about ambiguous sentences and words. I feel that the translator should have a co-writing credit; ‘collaboration’ may seem a little bit strong but I think it is appropriate. You have to trust that the final product has the tone you intended. Sometimes when I write I make jokes with words, I expect this will not translate.

This week I attended ‘Translators Talk’; a fantastic event that was part of the Shanghai International Literary Festival 2013. The contributors opened my mind to the idea of translation as an art form. There are obvious links to fine art, especially as we often use the word ‘language’ to describe an artist’s style. We also use the word ‘interpretation’ to describe a range of curatorial practices that communicate the meaning of artworks; very different to the ‘interpreters’ in the spoken word field, who act as a lightning-quick conduit between speakers of different languages.

We might naively consider translation of literary texts to be a straightforward process. In reality, there could be thousands of ways to convey the text in the ‘target’ language. Translators can spend days thinking of the ways that one sentence could be written. They might still be thinking about it while at the shops, having a swim or trying to get to sleep. Their own cultural knowledge, writing style and creativity all plays a part. A ‘google translation’ will not explain a ritual that is culturally-specific and unfamiliar to the reader, and it will not communicate tone.

As you might expect, there are many contemporary artists who have explored the idea of translation. Glasgow-based Oliver Braid, currently on a residency in Marseille, France, is ‘google translating’ his thoughts as a way of expressing the awkwardness that arises from communicating complex concepts in a new language and place (read his blog here). Neither English nor French people will really understand Braid’s blog, as to use google to translate it back to English generates nonsense. And for this year’s dOCUMENTA 13, Chinese artist Song Dong made an artists’ book from multiple translations of one ‘untranslatable’ Chinese sentence (two pages of this book are pictured).

Song Dong 2

Song Dong 1

Paul Gladston prefaces his book, ‘Contemporary Art in Shanghai: Conversations with Seven Chinese Artists,’ 2011, by saying “as anyone familiar with the making of translations/transcriptions of recorded conversations will readily acknowledge, recorded speech is often repetitious, contradictory, elliptical and grammatically incorrect. As a consequence, transcriptions/translations of recorded speech more often than not require careful editing so that they can be made readable while adhering as closely as possible to the traces of what was actually said.”

While I agree with Gladston with regards to printed text in a book, sometimes I think it is good to preserve some of the local grammar and idiosyncrasies. I am not the first person to be charmed by ‘Chinglish’. Just today I saw a sign at the University that said ‘Be disciplined and law abiding, not chaotic and lawless’: I presume this isn’t communicating the exact sentiment of the Chinese sign, but, then again, maybe it is? The point is to refine translations can be to erase evidence of the original tone and thought processes.

Back to the literary festival talk; the panelists highlight two other potential pitfalls with translation: exoticisation and forcing the text too much into a new cultural context. It takes considerable skill to navigate these two traps without falling in-between and being understandable to no-one. The challenge is to balance accuracy, elegance, readability and faithfulness; and to always keep in mind the target audience. The translators also urged that you should only translate source material that you really love and care about.

They also made the point that as more and more people become bilingual, a greater degree of sophistication in translation is demanded by the audience. The same could be said of a more sophisticated art audience demanding a sophisticated interpretation. In fact, many of the points that the panel made about the act of translation are also true of curation. To a certain extent we could define the curation and interpretation of contemporary art as the act of handing the viewer a cipher to help them crack the code.

Walking through People’s Park at 10am on a wet Wednesday morning.  The rain does not spoil this urban sanctuary. In fact, the droplets disrupting the stream echo the shapes of the plants beneath the surface of the water.  It is a park tinged with artificiality; punctuated by strange steel mushrooms and silver tunnels.  At the weekend in this park parents display summaries of their children in data (age, height, salary) on laminated A4 sheets of paper in the hopes they will attract suitable marriage material on their behalf.  The park manages to maintain its own distinctive character despite being at the centre of a hectic metropolis.

Behind the trees, in a black-mirror-clad building is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai. MOCA is public focussed but privately owned. It is moody and sexy and science-fiction.  For the show that has just opened, Existence, young female curator Wang Weiwei presents the work of seven young male Chinese contemporary artists to “give us a chance to find possibilities… to widen or change perspectives, to try and understand the way people think, so see life with a critical attitude.”  A rather beautiful intention.

This exhibition refuses to leave its context at the door.  The interior landscape designed by architect Wang Tiantian feels like a continuation of the park; visitors are invited to walk on a wooden bridge that zigzags across the ground floor, past a pile of earth and its corresponding muddy print on the wall, past photographs and documents, past drawings and across a pond and delivers you to artist Gao Mingyan’s laboratory of material culture experiments.  This system is based on a traditional Chinese concept of garden-building called ‘one stop one scene’ and it encourages pauses; holding the exhibits at arm’s length.

Andy Mo’s drawings are the protagonist in the narrative of Existence.  They zoom in and out of their subjects; we see the elephant’s spine, then we see its entirety, an abstracted sea-scape, a killer whale.  His works are presented on the within and outwith a tower that creates a spinal column of architectural materiality though the middle of the space.  The interplay between sculpture and other media is skilfully handled, as is using Mo’s drawings and the tower to link the first and second floors.


Not every artist in the exhibition has a fully mature practise; several seem to be thrashing ideas around wildly; but all are willing to take an idea to the end of the line. One artist whose work is resolved and confident is Shanghai-based Su Chang; his miniature plaster landscapes on metal stilts are graceful plateaus, evocative of traditional drawings but completely timeless.  He brings his thinking up to date with models of contemporary Shanghai; a slice of the superhighway (pictured), a block of flats and the ubiquitous metal gates.

These artists are making art objects, but they do not appear to be motivated by making them saleable.  The objects have become, at least in this exhibition, part of an immersive experience.  This brings to mind Nicholas Bourriaud’s contention that contemporary art is now (he was writing at the end of the 1990s, but it still seems appropriate) “a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to an unlimited discussion.”  In a city and a place where social history and art history are very tightly knitted, this offers an additional layer of meaning; contemporary artists have an important role in kick-starting discussions that no-one else seems to be having.

Not far away geographically (but very far away in terms of curatorial approach and content) is the exhibition Potent Force, curated by Karen Smith at the Rockbund Art Museum.  Smith gives each of the two female artists two floors each.  This separation does not create autonomous shows, as the work of Hu Xiaoyuan and Duan Jianyu complement each other; but, unlike the artists in Existence, each benefits from being considered individually.

I begin with Duan’s paintings (which you will not if you climb the art deco stairs from floor 1 to floor 5 in ascending order.)  At first I find her work ugly (postmodern?) and I am not sure what it wants to be, but after not very long I find them poignant and clever.  I start to wonder if these images came to her in a dream.  Apparently, I have been told, sleeping and dreaming are the mind’s way of processing the events of the day; this could explain why the cheeky juxtapositions, sad sentiments and folkloric imagery in these scenarios look half-remembered; they are analysing life but not offering a coherent analysis.

This space could be difficult to curate ~ a mezzanine, hidden corridors and walls of differing lengths ~ but it is perfect for painter of stories who plays with formats.  Along one long wall is her masterpiece (certainly from this particular selection) Muse and Museum, produced while the artist was on a residency in France in 2011.  This panorama places a museum like the one in Nantes, where she stayed, within a “parallel and interrelated world” populated by Frida Kahlo-esque female figures in metal bindings, chickens, which the artist describes as “free and easy thinkers and doubters of beauty” and 1950s modernist botanicals. It demonstrates her skill in invoking new worlds from her stockpile of references and symbols.

Hu’s sculptures and videos likewise demand some time be spent on them (a selection of stills are pictured). They are immediately visually compelling but the full picture of how each work is made emerges slowly.  She creates intrigue in the drip of a water droplet from skin, the edge of a piece of paper appearing like a forest from the window of a car at dusk, or an actor dancing in the waves to keep back the tide.  Her sculptures, too, are elemental and secretive; possessing both masculine and feminine qualities.  She tears paper in a rage and then meticulously reassembles it; she draws the surface of wood onto gauze and then reapplies it like a canvas on a stretcher.


The most subtle of Hu’s works (within a practise defined by subtlety) is the video, See, presented among her sculptural work – use of white is the connection.  At first it appears as though nothing is happening; it is just a blank white screen, opposite a monitor, which is turned on but placed on the floor and turned to face the wall.  Slowly, ever so slowly, a different shade of white grows across the white screen.  The secret of this work is not digital processing, but that this is a document of a performance; the artist is creeping between sheets of paper, moving one with her back.  The artist describes this as a test of the audience’s “willingness to see” which also gives the piece its title.

Base on my, admittedly limited, experience of contemporary art in China, it seems that in these two exhibitions there are some artists who are particularly good spokespeople for a generation trying to articulate its identity.  If there is one message they all agree on, it is that they suggest that their audiences slow down to almost a stop, for just a moment, and interrupt their frenzied lives. The exhibitions question existing power structures not with a harsh critique of the status quo, but with proposals for a new deeply spiritual and enquiring way of living that can extend beyond art production.  The featured artists all share an impulse to speak in their own languages, interrogate art and create new universes.