Power ballads: two exhibitions in Shanghai

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.

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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.

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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.

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