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Contemporary Chinese Art

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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“Stand still, and I will read to thee / A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy / These three hours that we have spent / Walking here, two shadows went / Along with us, which we ourselves produced / But now the sun is just above our head / We do those shadows tread”… These are the opening words of John Donne’s 17th-century metaphysical poem, A Lecture Upon The Shadow, which lends its title to the outcome of a collaboration between ShanghART, Shanghai and Open Eye, Liverpool.

­To linger over Donne’s poem for a moment before we enter the exhibition in its second incarnation ­at Open Eye; there is both hard and softness (‘lecturing’ contrasted with ‘love’) and powerful imagery in the form of the shadow. It talks about time and change, and the phases of love. Phases, changes, and, indeed, metaphysics (a strand of philosophy concerned with abstract thought, being, time, causality and trust) can all be found in this exhibition if you look for them. There is a playful attitude towards light, as well as a long dark shadow cast by a gaggle of less than law-abiding CEOs.

The artists are divided into groups of three to occupy the two spaces that make up the ground-floor exhibition area – both countries represented in each room. David Penny (pictured, above) says of his work (displayed alongside Liang Yue and Man Yi in the first space) that it is the outcome of an interest in “still life, unwanted things… [and] photography as a productive device”. He photographs images, torn from art books and made into delicate sculptural objects, applies a colour filter and finishes them with a box frame; a process beginning and ending with an image, transforming the ephemeral into the substantial.

Either side of Penny are images that are painterly but at the same time recall 1990s fashion magazine photography; disregarding the need to sit firmly in either figuration or abstraction, or to stick with colour or black and white. They suggest stories (Man Yi, is that water running down the street or blood?), intimacy, loneliness; there are Kusama-esque spots of colour, textures, journalism; but the experience is not chaotic. They share a sensibility with images on instagram or flickr; but those websites struggle to preserve this much engagement in the medium of photography.

In the second room, Tabitha Jussa describes how, having not spoken to any former residents in her research process, there were many at the opening who wanted to “share their histories and memories” of the place in her image. She has produced a composite image, but hyper-real, not invented. New-build housing peeks through the spaces between formerly grand homes built by an Edwardian philanthropist. This kind of vista will be familiar to many people who live in Liverpool, due to the dramatic fluxes in population through the decades, and doubtless well intended changes in policy.

‘Policy’ is a word that hangs slightly menacingly in the air in this room. The final UK artist, David Jacques, isn’t dealing with conventional world leaders or authorities, but rather the new-world order of Chief Executives of multinational companies. Here they are shown as caricatures in perverse narratives; their faces, copied from corporate websites, are given Nazi uniforms and lizards’ tails. This project is a departure from his usual text-based work but consistent with his politics (it was too much for the Chinese authorities, who prohibited its showing in Shanghai). But, despite its dark subject matter, there is something comical in its ‘Ickean’ conspiratorial urgency.

The last Chinese artist has an articulate but cautious message, which is complemented by Jussa and Jacques. Fan Shi San’s Two of Us series mourns the siblings that never were due to the one child policy that controls population growth in China. Fan’s images, of all the artworks in the exhibition, embed themselves in your mind’s eye: the bleak settings and heartbreaking facial expressions communicate the loneliness many experience as a consequence of being only children. Each pair of figures look sadly away from each other, unable to offer comfort to their imaginary twin.

Twinning is an appropriate theme, as it is likely the reason that this exhibition came to be. Liverpool and Shanghai have been ‘twinned’ since 1999. There are some obvious reasons for this particular pairing: both regional capitals gained their wealth and character through their ports, which acted as windows to the world. In A Lecture Upon The Shadow, we are invited to consider the similarities and differences of these two locations, and also offered an example of what is possible with a collaboration between a private and a public organisation.

Visually, the art of these six artists sits easily together, despite the variety of approaches. There is inquisitiveness and questioning (of life and the photography process) which can be found in all of the artists. Perhaps the curators borrowed Donne’s imagery as even after 400 years academics cannot come up with a definitive interpretation of his poem, and so it provides only the loosest of frameworks. However, curatorial looseness doesn’t diminish enjoyment, the artists are individually memorable and collectively they produce a show of very high quality.

A Lecture Upon the Shadow runs at Open Eye Gallery until 17 February 2013

Article first published on thedoublenegative.co.uk in January 2013