A way in – Shanghai Biennale

The first time I visited the Power Station of Art, epicentre of the 9th Shanghai Biennale, was hours into my recent – and first ever – visit to the city (the reasons for my trip are best explained here) and I was still experiencing waves of howling distress from my jet-lagged body clock.

A student called Monica met me at Shanghai Pudong International Airport early that morning. After a few moments to collect my thoughts in the hotel, we set off for the gallery, giving it a final destination feel on my 24 hour journey from Liverpool. From Xizeng Nan Lu station on metro line 8, we walked to the elevated highway past high-rise flats and damp laundry. For ages. Eventually the tower of the former power station loomed in to view. This gallery, like the roads, the shops, the skyscrapers and the gaps between things in Shanghai, is BIG.

The Power Station is a legacy of the Shanghai Expo in 2010 and the land around it, like much of the city, is teaming with building sites and spaces in flux. It is, architecturally, a cross between Tate Modern, London and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. There has been quite a bit of debate about the meaning of this copycat-come-homage tendency in Chinese new building projects; a good article about it appeared in the Guardian earlier this year.

“Shanghai’s distinctive but splintered character is based on migrating, exchanging and trading”

Not everyone appreciates the compliment, but I am inclined to like this tendency in principle and enjoy it in practice. In Shanghai it seems more appropriate than elsewhere in China, the city having a history of importing and exporting ideas, influences and people, and its distinctive but splintered character is based on migrating, exchanging and trading; my own visit just one small example of this openness.

When we located the gallery, Monica left, leaving me alone without a map in a city the population of 46 Liverpools. Having a map is empowering, and, once I was in possession of one it became gradually personalised with annotations and ‘x’s, indicating galleries, restaurants or whole areas I had been to or planned to go to. It was also scrawled with phone numbers, Chinese characters and, eventually, worn out at the seams through excessive use. Maps are where journeys meet thought processes. This Biennale used titles like Map of Utopia and Map of Total Art, produced by its chief curator Qiu Zhijie (the only Chinese member of the core curatorial team), as its visual identity. The maps link the main theme (reactivation) with motifs – resources, revisit, reform and republic – via hand-drawn renderings of rivers, mountainscapes, machinery and physiological systems.

In the gallery the Biennale begins with a piece that playing on ideas around copying and referencing. Thousand Hands Kuanyin by Huang Yongping is an 18-metre high sculpture that comprises a thousand rusty metal mannequin-like arms, each holding a different house-hold object. The effect is like Marcel Duchamp’s readymade Bottle Dryer of 1914 and the female Buddhist goddess Bodhisattva Guanyin both went into the teleporter in The Fly and then someone turned the laser from Honey I Blew up the Kid on the outcome. It is a powerful starting point emphasising the impact of globalisation on contemporary art, reminding us that western art history is available to all to be studied, borrowed from or ignored as desired.

Another indictment of the globalised world walks down the steps and into the atrium. Simon Fujiwra’s piece, Project of Social Intervention: Rebekka (main image), suffers from the limited interpretation that art festivals can afford to provide each work. On the surface it is an army made from 21st-century young female ‘terracotta warriors’, mostly intact but with some sections of heads or arms rolling at their feet. With context, it is a much more interesting work: the subject of his installation was one of the participants in the 2011 London riots, but as an alternative to a custodial sentence, Rebekka was offered the opportunity to travel to China and work with Fujiwra, visiting the site of the real terracotta army at Xi’an, amongst other activities. It remains to be seen whether this Daily Mail-provoking interruption to her life will have changed the course of her destiny.

Other works that visitors can see from the view point of the elevators that slice through the space in a pleasingly haphazard fashion are less show-stopping than those by Yongping and Fujiwra, but many play with scale and architecture. Several – including Jean Michel Bruyere’s Suspended Congress installation, made from conference chairs, and Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Pascale Column – used readymade materials reflecting the excess of production and waste in the streets beyond the gallery. In the interim (I enjoyed numerous visits) I had been thinking about how artists’ craft their own universes. On a return trip I discovered Chen Wei’s Salt City (above); I wanted to stay there, immersed in a universe made of antiques, ephemera and cobwebs that memorialises his home town of Zigong and reveals the influence of his “nimble-fingered mother”.

“On a cube monitor, Gillian Wearing is tirelessly Dancing in Peckham”

The curators say that the ‘reactivation’ theme refers to “livelihood modes from the perspective of energy”, which may explain why on a cube monitor hanging in a hidden-away corner, Gillian Wearing is tirelessly Dancing in Peckham. At first I was confused by the inclusion of this 20-year-old example of YBA video art, but maybe she stands for a certain period when the UK seemed to be the centre of the contemporary art world. (Another exhibition at the Power Station of Art, running concurrently but entirely separate from the biennale is Electric Fields: Surrealism and Beyond – La Collection du Centre Pompidou, which takes this narrative further back in time to Paris and the advent of modernism.) Works by artists like Sophie Calle and Han Zijian also share Wearing’s energy and uplifting spirit.

By the time of my visit in late February 2013 (it opened in October 2012) some of the exhibits had already closed, such is the speed that many Chinese organisations operate and programme their venues. This meant that I didn’t see the city pavilions that intervened in unused property in the Shanghai streets near the Bund (the late 19th-century European-style waterfront that looks across the Huangpu River to the futuristic Pudong); consequently it is hard to analyse the festival the way it was intended, sprawling outwards from the Power Station like Qiu’s maps.

Nevertheless, the biennale was my way in to the city. The artists I honed in on were those that dealt with issues pertinent to China and its specific socio-economic situation, but also those illustrating how events in one place can affect the whole world, like the ripples from a stone thrown into a stream. From the terrace on the fifth floor I looked out over the Huangpu River, the building works and across to the skyscrapers of Pudong, and wondered whether biennales are defined by being international and therefore not wholly ‘of’ their host location. But it is impossible to separate the two; places and buildings always carry meaning specific to locale.

Many thinkers have questioned the value of art festivals recently as the global tally of biennales, triennials and quinquennials (really) pushes up towards 300. It seemed easier to think about ‘big’ things in China, with its large scale and sharp contrasts. Perhaps it is easier to be objective about art and life when you take yourself out of your normal life and location, and biennales can prompt you to do that. Although they don’t necessarily solve problems on a local level, international art festivals supplement other activities and help us to analyse and navigate the course of our existence. Biennales create a constantly evolving network of real art encounters; they take us to places we might not have been to before – cities, countries and artists’ universes.

Article first published in thedoublenegative.com April 2013

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