Contemporary Chinese Art

Last week I spoke at the conference Making the New World: the Art of China’s Revolution. At the time of writing this, full programmes can still be found online, here. These are some notes and thoughts on the event – please excuse the fact that my attention wasn’t evenly applied throughout; it has no relation to how engaging the speakers were, more to do with the timing of my own presentation! Also the images are less than ideal, but give a sense of the breadth of the visual material that was presented. Some more shots were posted to twitter, find them using the hashtag #CCVA2016.

This was the 9th annual conference of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA) at Birmingham City University and took place at Whitechapel Gallery. Organised by CCVA members Professor Joshua Jiang, Research Assistant & Leverhulme Project Facilitator Hiu Man Chan and Post-Doctoral Researcher Heather Connelly in collaboration with the team at Whitechapel Gallery.

This blog was supposed to focus on women and gender themes during the two days, but in fact it is an overview of all the papers with women and gender probably emerging with slight prominence according to what I noted down at the time. Incidentally, the Guerrilla Girls have a display at the Whitechapel Gallery on right now, where they have analysed the data on European art galleries and museums regarding women and trans representation in collections, exhibition programmes etc – worth a look.

Day one

Professor Richard King from the University of Victoria, Canada delivered the keynote: Cultural Policy for A Heroic Age: the Summary. The model operas, he explained were really a template for all the arts during the Cultural Revolution (for convenience 1966-1976 – more on this in a moment).

“The basic task of socialist literature is to work hard to create heroic characters of workers, peasants and soldiers… [quoting Jiang Qing in 1968:] Of all characters, give prominence to positive characters, of all positive characters give prominence to heroic characters, of heroic characters give prominence to the most important one, i.e. the central character”

Regarding gender, notably he also added “women enter the hero mode permanently” during the Cultural Revolution. Critics of Jiang Qing however, see her as putting women in central roles to promote her own position. Professor King noted that central to Jiang Qing’s mission using the arts was to “over turn all of the previous”. The enduring popularity of the model operas isn’t so much political, he contends, as much as they offer “a warm bath of nostalgia.” (Professor King burst into revolutionary song at one point which was a real treat, prompting Professor Jiang to suggest a choir might come to fruition at some stage.)


In the Q&A Professor Craig Clunas asked the question of what it means to periodize the Cultural Revolution, a question he suggested we would return to throughout the two days. Professor King admitted it is “handy”. Katie Hill asked about the relationship between the “choreographed representation of politics” of the model operas and the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Professor King, whilst stating the Cultural Revolution and the Olympic ceremony were extremely different cases, the former noticeably absent from the latter, added that in the Chinese context “whatever the ideology it will be beautifully produced.” Because of the lack of dissection of the Cultural Revolution he said that with this conference “we are filling the hole absent from public discourse.”

Panel one

What united the papers of this panel was a close reading of artworks from the Cultural Revolution to offer new interpretations. Providing as Craig Clunas said in his summing up “the new historiography” for this period. The meanings of authorship and materiality were also themes that ran throughout.

From Minerva Inwald’s paper The Socialist Art Palace: early Cultural Revolution art exhibitions, I noted the difficulty she mentioned in researching Cultural Revolution cultural or artistic products due to the fact they were often copied, ephemeral, the result of collective or collaborative production. Minerva challenged the idea that there were no exhibitions during the Cultural Revolution, finding that not only did they take place, but that they were a key part of the dissemination of Communist rhetoric.

Wang Gerui’s paper Ambivalence in Li Keran’s Jinggang Mountain: negotiating artistic agency and state obligation during the Cultural Revolution, on the other hand was about an individual artist’s desire to work in the style of landscape painting when it became unpopular; and how Li Keran reconciled his duty to produce political art, with his own, perhaps, ambiguous political position.

Vivian Li in Becoming A Model Artwork: the Rent Collection Courtyard considered the ways in which this ambitious collectively-produced sculpture did or did not correspond to the criteria for art as set out by Mao and Jiang Qing in 1942 and 1968. She also considered the meanings of the locally sourced clay and how this made it a “grass roots” artwork. Originally intended as something ephemeral, Li has documented the present day attempts to preserve it. – Of particular significance in relation to my research and my paper later on, is how Jiang Qing – a woman, albeit of contested agency – was the author of the framework for model artworks, which underpinned all the cultural production of this period.

In the last paper for this session Between Arts and Mass Criticism: perceiving the beautiful through Cultural Revolution audiences Christine Ho traced the ways in which the masses were encouraged to critique artworks; as well as how peasants were taught to make art by professionals. Ho proposes how this criticism politicised the works themselves in ways that model operas did not require, due to the former being “mute”.


Panel two

Corey Schultz presented some of his work on the films of Jia Zhangke, in his paper titled The Maoist Peasant Figure and Its Affective Importance in Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture. Unfortunately, I didn’t make many notes on this paper, but you can find out more about Corey and his work here. It was concerned with queer desire, agency of the desired and relations of power.

Agender Performance: aesthetic discipline of heroines in the Cultural Revolution was the title of Zhang Li’s paper. She framed the “agendering” of women’s bodies during the Cultural Revolution, evidenced through posters especially as a performance, using the Shakespeare quote:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. 


The last paper in this session was mine. I thought that it followed on really well from the first two as it was concerned with the ‘ungendering’ I called it, of women’s bodies, and also contends that cultural products have the power to create realities and impact on how we see ourselves and others – which resonated with Corey’s research. I referred to Dai Jinhua and Liao Wen in proposing a reading of contemporary art that takes into account a legacy of ‘male authored’ representations of women; especially those like the ‘New Woman’ that emerged at exactly the same time as women “surfaced onto the horizon of history” according to Dai, and the representations of women that were produced as part of Communist discourse from 1949-1976. Some pictures of my slides were posted to Twitter.

Professor Harriet Evans was the chair of this session.

Day two

This day began with a keynote from artist Shen Jiawei. He showed a lot of fantastic images from his own archive, informal shots of him as a young man during the Cultural Revolution as well as preparatory photographs for paintings. Some of the pictures showed him and others with weapons, at one point to help out a friend who needed to paint one he said: “I leant them my machine gun”. Whilst Shen Jiawei claimed never to have been involved in violence, he still seems quite energised by that formative period of his life.


In the Q&A with Proffesor Jiang Jiehong, Shen Jiawei was asked: “do you see your work as artwork or propaganda art?” The artist claimed his early work was the latter and it became the former after the end of the Cultural Revolution and, I presume, as he matured as an artist. However, the question demonstrated the insufficiency of these concrete terms. Shen Jiawei also pointed out that as styles move across borders – such as Soviet Realism being taken up by the PRC – they can lose some of the original meaning attached to them, and gain new meanings. There was also an interesting discussion on the relationship between Western High Renaissance paintings of Jesus, and Mao Zedong as the sun (god).

Panel three

Martin Mulloy began this session with his paper Photography and the Cultural Revolution. He proposed that to analyse photographs of this period requires an idea of the “rhetorical demands” as well as access to technology and methods of dissemination. He showed some fascinating darkroom-doctored photographic images and said:

“Cultural Revolution photographs cemented how we see [the period] into another kind of truth.”


Li Zhensheng and Zhang Dali, Martin contends, “disrupt the narrative the Communists were trying to ‘calcify into truth’” as well as the “wilful amnesia” of the Communist era. The other major factor, of course, was photography’s relationship with modernity – and he showed us some very modern photographic artworks that had been produced and disseminated during the Republican era.

Propaganda on Shellac, Vinyl and Plastic: the politics of record production during the Cultural Revolution in China was the title of the next paper, by Andrea Steen. He provided a lot of political economic detail about the production of propaganda audio recordings during the Cultural Revolution, as well as fascinating insight into the speed at which production of the records responded to active consumption and the legacy of this period. As he noted at the end: “China is the only country I know of with an official music category called ‘Revolution’”.


Wang Rujie’s contribution was deeply personal, drawing on his own perspectives of the Cultural Revolution as a boy but combining them with the theories of Roland Barthes in his paper Image-Music-Text: the rhetoric of the arts from the Cultural Revolution. “What I had lived through is a myth or a dream.” He returned to this idea of Mao as godlike figure, as well as proposing that we are always in a myth, either “the myth of the left or the myth of the right.”


Wang also suggested:

“perhaps for the first time the Chinese were able imagine their daily lives as intimately connected to [the poor people of the rest of the world] transnationalism through culture of Mao in the visual arts.” Wang also expounded on the total immersion of politics in daily life: “if you got married you stood in front of Mao’s picture… a set of interconnected practices… there is no private moment you can leave out of the Revolution.”

What characterised this session, without actually saying the word ‘gesamkunstwerk’ was an insight into the interrelatedness of the different media. Martin Molloy added that “contentious periods go in and out of forgetfulness” (which seemed appropriate given all the global problems right now and questions of how the media can report objectively when it is caught between political ideology and cultures of consumption.)

Panel four

Mark Nash in his paper Screen Theory and the Cultural Revolution Cinema took us back to the 1970s when he had co-produced Cultural Revolution era film screenings in London. He said at one point “One of the characters would pretend to be the Communist party… when the Communist party is revealed, it is often in the body of a woman.”

Yawen Ludden’s paper From Model Opera to Model Society: Jiang Qing, Yu Huiyong, and Yangbanxi gave an uncommonly generous account of the model operas and Jiang Qing’s legacy of moving and popular works of art. Ludden attributes this to the reputation that Jiang Qing already had in the Peking Opera world from her early career as a movie star. Ludden, whose background is in music and lecturing about music, described the collaboration between Jiang Qing and composer Yu Huiyong. Yu, she says, used a Western orchestra combined with Chinese instruments to evoke place and establish tone, which wasn’t the case in Peking Opera, although the model operas “retain a Peking opera / Chinese essence.”

Eldon Pei’s paper, which was the final presentation of the conference, was titled The Atom Bomb Is A Celluloid Tiger and provided a psychoanalytical reading of the documentary film ‘Great Triumph of Mao Zedong Thought’ from 1966. The extraordinary film, which wasn’t intended for public consumption but rather internal propaganda, describes nuclear testing during the period. It is linked to wider conditions of modernity – the “technological imaginary” of colour pictorial magazines as well as to real human trauma. Pei focuses on the abundant bodily fluids, supposedly sweat that issue from the boots of the men on the screen.


The panel discussion for this session was chaired by Professor Chris Berry.

“In the 1980s a lot happened in China… But I was in America…

Everyone was travelling, including myself. As a curator I want to embrace that.”

This was Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture this week, in the new Andrew Wiles building of Oxford University. I travelled down to catch this one lecture, which was his “personal narrative” of Chinese contemporary art; although his entire lecture series concerned with the feminine space in Chinese Art History would have been fantastic background for my doctorate project. I am establishing a genealogy of women’s studies, gender and body discourses in the Chinese context and then using them as the basis for analysing the work of around twenty contemporary artists.


Wu Hung speaking at his Slade lecture, 29 February 2016. Picture courtesy of the author

I’m about half way through the first year of my doctorate, which seems a good time to reflect on the experience so far. The first semester was a bit of a blur of conferences, training, narrowing down the scope of my ridiculously large original research proposal – and reading. It seemed like every week I was learning something new about the way that I worked, as well as learning about the Chinese context in general and honing down what I wanted to ask about Chinese contemporary art. Every day the space of the unknown grew bigger, even as I was filling my head with new knowledge. I was immersed in a world of languages that I don’t speak – Mandarin, Chinese writing, a myriad of Chinese topolects, and ‘academic’ language in all its interdisciplinary forms.

Several times I have been reminded of an article I wrote a couple of years ago about the relationship between translation studies and curating Chinese contemporary art – and its content now seems portentous. I am not curating I am researching, but never the less, the concepts and practices of translation are constantly taking place. I am reading texts in translation and I am considering the content and meanings pieces of art that were made on the other side of the world, and from this situation far away I am considering their local implications.

This is where serendipity and subjectivity come in: however planned we are in our research methodologies, reading one source leads to another; a casual conversation changes everything; it is a pathway, a journey, and a personal one, peppered with coincidence and chance as much as it is crafted with care and intent.

Subjectivity alone cannot create meaningful research. I am challenging myself to think around the Westernized perspective that I hold – not denying the existence of this perspective, but realising what effect it has on my study of culture. In my career to date I have been involved with providing ‘access to stuff’ and in a sense my research now continues in this simple mission. I am contributing to intercultural understanding with a view to supporting the interpretation of Chinese contemporary art from outside of China.

Back to Wu Hung. His telling of Chinese contemporary art history is through his own experiences – subjective – he is keen to assert this. But at 71 this year, he has been present and active alongside the significant historical events of the second half of the twentieth century in China – even if he was sometimes in America – and contributed to Chinese contemporary art’s emergence into the mainstream within China in the 1970s, as well its globalization in the 1990s and beyond.

In terms of his identity, Wu studies art history, he says, writes about contemporary art and curates contemporary art. These practices have “different distances” to their subject matter. Writing and researching has more of a separation whereas curating you are: “working with the moment.” Making history I suppose.


Born with the Cultural Revolution, by Xing Danwen, 1995. Exhibited in the Transience exhibition curated by Wu Hung at University of Chicago in 1999

He touches on his own definition of the label “Chinese contemporary art” – he uses this expression for freely. For him it means art from the mainland; not the diaspora or ‘greater China’ i.e. Hong Kong and Taiwan. To include these areas he says is “problematic.” And working to define contemporary art – at least its conception in the American understanding, underpinned one of his early curatorial projects, ‘Transcience’ at the University of Chicago in 1999. Sub-themes within this show included ‘history and memory,’ ‘women’s art’ and ‘monuments and ruins.’ There was also a strand dealing with the ephemeral in art, or what he called the “mortality of images” as well as ideas around individuality, existential questions and the new Chinese middle class.

Another exhibition he curated at University of Chicago ‘Cancelled: Exhibition Experimental Art in China’ took on the subject of local government intervention in exhibitionary practice, i.e. shutting exhibitions down. His preferred methodology for curating is to focus in depth on one area – he compares this to an academic process. These tightly focussed thematic exhibitions as well as one-person shows are what he enjoys – more so than Biennales and triennials. He seems most interested in the concept of space and distance between audience and object.

Several of the solo exhibitions that Wu Hung developed are still touring, years on from their original presentation. He has mixed feelings about this; it is a mark of their enduring interest and value, but sometimes they can become too distanced from their beginnings. Song Dong’s ‘Waste not’ for example was originally laid out piece by piece by the artist’s family – at the request of the artist’s mother. This doesn’t happen anymore.

I can see Wu’s desire to offer people the closest, most ‘authentic’ (he didn’t use this word) possible experience in his book Primary Documents, which he co-edited with Peggy Wang. It is a generous book that wants to provide access to textual materials relating to Chinese contemporary art in their most unabridged form (translated, mind you). But I find this book’s analysis to be in its very selection of the texts. Curation, I am trying to say, always creates some distance.


Book cover Primary Documents, ed Wu Hung and Peggy Wang.  First published September 2010

Disappointed as I am that I couldn’t make every lecture in Wu Hung’s Slade series, I feel assured that he will provide access to this information some how in the future. What is interesting for me is that he is contributing to a wider, international project to reassess (art) history to find women’s stories.

But it has been useful to me to consider his motivations as an academic and curator in the field that I am working at the edge of – Chinese contemporary art. His interest in distance, and his emphasis on the personal both resonate with me right now. I am engaged in a process of finding traces of ideas – working with everything at a distance of geography, as well as time, and through the barriers of cultural and linguistic understanding. I am developing my own interpretive methodology that considers the meaning when ideas have travelled across centuries, been subject to all manner of interventions and translation processes.

One can’t read everything, see everything, attend every lecture; there is always a selection, a sifting, curation: serendipity will always play a role in the life of the researcher. I was fortunate to attend this lecture, which has given me a chance to reflect on the last five months, as I move forward into the next phase of my research.

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Ai Weiwei at Royal Academy of Arts is not an alternative universe, nor an immersive world. It is not a solution to the craving for the spiritual that I have noticed in London during my visit this time. (Along with a trend for a sort of irritable cautiousness – but more on that another time.)

The work on display here is work made for museums, that is the scale that we are talking about, made from materials that could have been found in a museum – except they weren’t.


I am not even sure that they are old, but then I am not an expert.

Objects that he says were found or repurposed I suspect were mostly fabricated by the one of the several practitioners that he mobilizes to make his pieces. Joiners and furniture makers, marble, glass and jade workers, metal fabricators and ceramicists

So are they possessed with history? Yes. All the work here vibrates with the history and geography of China as much as it is concerned with the present and his current struggles. Struggles with the authorities, I mean. Not, as someone pointed out to me recently, with materials.

These struggles are important. Without these struggles with the authorities, what would remain? Their interventions are integral to his work. They are the lens that he offers us with which to view his output.

The eight hundred partygoers in his doomed architectural commission that turned the work into a ‘happening’ whilst Ai was held in prison overnight. The sculptural storyboard of his incarceration – detailed dioramas of humiliation and interrogation.

His critique of the authorities seems sincere but it is tinged with an impishness.

Where he seems to recede a little, lost behind and within works that are too minimal, too formal, he has written himself back into the story with new video documentaries. His strength, as we know, is in the force of his character, his personality, his sense of humour, his face even. He is most alive on Instagram.

Given that, maybe this venue is not such an ideal location for this artist and these works. The Royal Academy exhibition rooms underscore the seriousness of their contents and there isn’t much room for humour or dialogue. Maybe these things need windows to let the light in. (The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the annual and perennially easy breezy Summer Exhibition.)

Ai Weiwei invites scepticism. Remember the people who questioned at the time whether Ai really was detained by the Chinese authorities? Was it because the whole thing seemed so unreal in this day and age? Or did they wonder whether he was writing the next chapter of his own mythology?

I am not sure that this is really Ai’s work. By which I do not mean that it engages with issues of plagiarism and authorship, I simply think that his primary medium is the media. Or maybe his real work is the merchandise in the shop.

But here, back in the gallery, one of the other visitors earnestly listening to their audio guide mutters: “Just because he is famous. Just because he is famous.” I am not sure exactly what they mean but I feel that Ai has deliberately left some gaps for us to be sceptical about. He wants us to talk about his work, to argue over whether Chinese art is political enough, to question what is real and unreal. And in the silence, after the pot hits the floor, you can hear him laughing.

Remains, 2015

Remains, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014

In March this year, Intellect published the first issue of the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art.  The individual articles can be purchased individually here. This includes my article: The headless woman in contemporary Chinese art.  It investigates work by Liu Jianhua, Lin Tianmiao, Yu Chang and Wang Xingwei; below is the abstract:

contemporary Chinese art,headless woman,identity,propaganda,Cultural Revolution

In this article, selected works by four Chinese artists who emerged towards the end of the twentieth century are examined. The works have in common the motif of the headless woman. This motif is explored within the historical timeframe in which they have lived, trained, emerged as professional artists and produced these works; investigated in relation to the artists’ contact with the work of European and American artists using the same motif; considered in the context of the lives of women in the PRC following the end of the Cultural Revolution, and in relation to ideas about individualism and collectivism (and particularly the move from one to the other) in China.

Lin Tianmiao Mother's!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist

Lin Tianmiao Mother’s!!! No. 12-1 (detail), 2008. Courtesy: The artist


Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Chinese Gate from the series The Dark Ages copyright Jamie Lau 2014

Earlier this week I went to see the new exhibition at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool. The gallery describes the show as an audio, visual survey of the history and changes that have taken place within the oldest Chinese community in Europe; it is curated by exhibition coordinator Jill Carruthers. Ebb and Flow presents a mixture of fine art photography, archive material, photojournalism and sound recordings.

The exhibition takes a reverse chronological approach, starting with newly commissioned work by artist Jamie Lau. Lau’s photographs show the glow of street signs at night, demonstrating his skillful handling of chiaroscuro, perhaps partly due to his mixed media practice, which also includes sculpture. Lau we are told is an outsider to the community (and the city – he is based in London). His work seems a bit detached – very beautiful and painterly, with shades of Edward Hopper or Ed Rusha.

Lau’s work is evocative of Chinatown as a place, but it doesn’t focus on the individuals and the personalities of the community. The other fine art photographer in the exhibition, however, does just this. Martin Parr has documented many aspects of Merseyside life during his forty-year career. His images in this exhibition are typical of his ‘intimate, satirical and anthropological’ style, resulting in work that is a bit kitsch, a bit funny; strong images that potentially say more about Parr than his subjects – so distinctive is his lens.

A very different anthropological approach is practiced by The Sound Agents. They collect aural histories, ephemera and archive material to preserve the personal stories of a community that dates back to 1834 and eighty years later is the city’s largest non-white ethnic group. In this exhibition, the outcomes of their research serve as useful context, rather than contributing critically.

The final section of the exhibition, on the top floor, comprises images by photojournalist Bert Hardy. What elevates this group of photographs is the note in the interpretation that they were not published by his employer, Picture Post, in the 1940s because they revealed the hardship of the Chinese seamen – who were paid less than their white British counterparts – and would have caused a scandal. It’s interesting to put this last, so we don’t read all the work as being defined by this inauspicious foundation.

What this exhibition demonstrates is how important the community is to the character and history of modern Liverpool. No one element of this exhibition can tell the whole account of the Chinese residents of the city, however, the different strands of the show complement each other well. The only thing that could be considered missing is fine art or critical content generated by the community itself.

Concept image by Li Xiaodong

Concept image by Li Xiaodong

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.

Wisdom Tower, 2013 by He Xiangyu

Wisdom Tower, 2013 by He Xiangyu

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.

The Cargo, 2012 by Zhang Enli

The Cargo, 2012 by Zhang Enli

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.

On a tangent from some research I am doing, I came across this video where Curator Phillip Tinari talks about some of the most exciting contemporary Chinese artists today, all of whom were born after 1978.  In particular, it was interesting to me because when I was in Shanghai I visited the studio of Madein Company.  This is the alias of artist Xu Zhen.  His moniker draws attention to the now-common mode of mass-manufactured, highly organised and resourced modern artistic production.

His studio was an artistic hub, where large scale installations were being assembled and a wide variety of creative practitioners operated.  His work varies from performances wherein assistants throw sculptures in the air from their hidden location within a white cube, to ornate ambitious constructions like the one in progress in the image below, that take teams of people working by hand to produce.  Madein Company is fast, caustic and exciting. One to look out for.


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 April 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.