There is nothing unusual these days about three Chinese contemporary artists having concurrent shows in central London. Or, for that matter, a Chinese practitioner from any discipline being included in a survey exhibition of their field here. What follows are some thoughts on the current snap shot of Chinese art on show in the UK capital, through the filter of my current research focus: the relationship between translation and curatorial practise in the display of Chinese art outside the PRC.
The first exhibition was He Xiangyu at White Cube, Bermondsey. The venue recalls The Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin. An abundance of space, a different scale to most comparable galleries. Doors so vast I assumed they were a loading bay rather than the entrance that visitors should use. Xiangyu was one of three artists on show in separate solo presentations. His work requires space (in particular to accommodate a full size tank made from luxury Italian leather) but also brings our attention to the tiny and fragile. On this occasion to a pagoda made from his own wisdom teeth.
Xiangyu was born in 1986 and is based in Beijing. Like many of his contemporaries, he is concerned with the relationship between materials and the manufacture of goods. He used a factory of seamstresses to make his tank, which lies deflated in the gallery like a carcass. He also makes reference in his work to the one child policy – represented by a single egg in an egg tray made from gold. Manufacture and government policy are issues impossible to avoid in any discourse concerning China in the 21st century. Many emerging Chinese artists feel compelled to address them in spite of the fact that (or maybe because) they have an international platform.
Across town, where all the galleries are surrounded by symbols of extreme wealth, White Cube Mason’s Yard displayed the work of only one artist, Liu Wei. Wei’s work, in a comparison with Xiangyu that is unnecessary apart from within the framework of this piece of writing, lacks the latter’s humour. His sculptures are monuments to urbanism. Beautifully made. Minimal. Dealing apparently with ideas of “structure and unpredictability, fixity and impermanence” using reformed building site detritus. These works are physically solid and conceptually impenetrable, my only hope is that one day I have the opportunity to hear the artist’s voice speaking on behalf of these strong, mute objects.
In this small section of the city I also found the last artist, and the architect under examination here. For the architect we need to look within the prestigious Royal Academy of Art and the exhibition Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined (on display until 6 April 2014). Each room is like a mission statement; a response to the Neoclassical interior of the RA, but also a showcase for the principles, concerns and style of each architectural practise. The exhibition encourages a non-linear progression through the rooms, and the emphasis is on a multi-sensory visitor experience using movement, sound and touch, and if you are so inclined, potentially through attending a yoga class as part of their special events programme.
The Chinese architect making up one seventh of the selection is Li Xiaodong. As with each of the rooms, the information we are provided with at the outset is scant, details like: location (Beijing) founding date (1997) the key materials in this installation (hazel sticks, acrylic panels with LED lights, beech plywood, pebbles, mirror) and some health and safety advice (some visitors may find the LED lighting disturbing). There was no attempt at this stage to anticipate your emotional experience or introduce the character of Xiaodong. This allowed me the freedom to respond in my own way – the sound of walking on pebbles evoking memories of walks on the beach – before finding out more about all the architects in a beautifully produced 16 minute film at the end. It was then that Xiaodong explained how he had previously used similar “twigs” to create a library in rural China, and the pebbles at the end of his RA ‘maze’ were not a beach but a zen garden.
Behind the RA in Hauser & Wirth on Saville Row, the work of Zhang Enli represents the generation preceding Xiangyu. Yet in his canvasses there is a melancholy, industrial thread that speaks to both the White Cube artists, as well as creating a space for reflection comparable to the installation of Xiaodong. Even when colours are used, their thin washes have a greyness. Enli’s paintings are figurative but self consciously inaccurate, paired down and nostalgic. Perhaps because he is older and he has been with the gallery for some time, they have provided a confident press release; although useful to have, I don’t feel I need much help to find my way into these works.
My final thought is even if you don’t feel you need it, that being given more information is never a bad thing. If not explicitly told, for example, I would never have guessed that an egg represented a child with no siblings. Although the convention in some contemporary galleries is to tell you as little as possible; as the RA demonstrates, audio visual materials can be sensitively and elegantly executed – it doesn’t have to feel like a museum. To see an artist’s body language, as well as hear their words, can enhance the experience of seeing their work (seeing an artist talk in the flesh is ideal but the opportunities to do this are often fleeting). Maybe younger artists of any nationality want to err towards saying less in order to let the work speak, but the risk in doing so is that some or all of the meaning is lost.