accidental exhibition, thoughts on the 7th sz sculpture biennale

Co-curated by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Su Wei, the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World (偶然的信息:艺术不是一个体系,也不是一个世界) has two sections, “Unexpected Encounters,” which presents the curators’ take on pivotal Chinese work from the 90s, and “What You See is What I See,” which showcases international artists with whom the curators have engaged over the past few yeas.

Liu Ding and Carol Yinghua Lu have written that their decision to juxtapose 1990s Chinese artwork with recent global artwork (including several Chinese artists who now travel on those circuits) in terms of a “secret glue” and the “mental bonds” that exist between creators, rather than needing “to be delineated according to artificial art politics and planned boundaries of the art system (exhibition catalogue page 25).” In other words, this is not an exhibition about the developments in sculpture over the past two years, or even about placing sculpture into conversation with other medium to get a sense of how digital art and video (the two strongest elements in the show) have reshaped our appreciation of what Benjamin once identified as sculpture’s yearning for immortality. Instead, Accidental Message is a celebratory catalogue of the desires, taste and experience of three people.

I actually get the curators’ urge to categorical disruption and their yearning for “unexpected encounters, chance glances, open hearts and respect for individuals (p 25)”. We all of us want to be recognized as unique personalities, creating connection through idiosyncratic gestures and resonating heartbeats. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure I get the impulse for random hook-ups because alienated, individual and individualizing subjectivity and celebration thereof are symptoms of neoliberal political economics and I was raised in the neoliberal suburbs of New Jersey and currently reside in a neoliberal with Chinese Characteristics Shenzhen neighborhood, [1] where pleasure is derived by crafting oneself into a subjectivity that can be picked up and broadcast over diverse, global networks, unhampered by borders or culture or paychecks or jobs or even history, in short to become a “creation of serendipity and individual spirit.”

Thus, point du jour is actually quite simple. Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Su Wei did not randomly encounter artists and ideas, but did so within the institutional context of art schools and certification, art grants and residencies, and arts funding choices, all which increasingly reflect the ongoing privatization of art for the benefit of corporations and their shareholders.

This year’s show, for example, coincided with the decision to rebrand the Shenzhen International Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition as the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale and hold it at the Overseas Chinese Town Contemporary Arts Terminal and B-10 gallery. OCT is a major Shenzhen real estate developer that has marketed itself through appeals to high cultural consumption, personal taste, and of course individualized pleasure. Indeed, the event also signaled the general upmarketing of OCT culture industry as an integrated component of its real estate projects. OCAT has been formally established as an independent, not-for profit art museum and as Overseas Chinese Towns (now a recognizable lifestyle brand) develop across the country, the Museum will take the lead in creating a series of art centers under the “Art Museum Cluster Program,” which the curators will take an active lead in developing.

Accidental Message runs until August 31. I enjoyed some of the pieces. I worry that taken as a whole, however, the show is not as subversive as the curators hoped, but instead exemplifies “business as usual” in Shenzhen’s push to become a player in global cultural industry. I close with impressions, below:

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[1] In her paper Enjoying Neoliberalism, Jodi Dean provides a relevant definition of neoliberalism as “…an economic doctrine that channels state intervention toward the elimination of projects of social solidarity in favor of privatization, economic deregulation, tariff reduction, and the use of public and monetary policy to benefit corporations and their shareholders.”

4 thoughts on “accidental exhibition, thoughts on the 7th sz sculpture biennale

  1. Your very gentle with them… I thought they just couldn’t find any sculptors, noticed some of the sculpture was done by performance and video artists. Pretty weak work in general. They should have taken some time away from writing the catalog to put a better show together, especially one that claims to be biennale.

    • Hi Ryan, I suspect with more attention to the relationship between other fine arts medium and sculpture the show might have better achieved their goal of deconstructing traditional art categories. I agree that this kind of categorical thinking is especially relevant at a biennale. That said, I also understand the appeal of an idiosyncratic interpretation of “sculpture”, but that is part of my larger point: ideologically, the show celebrates neoliberal subjectivity, whatever the specific art content may or may not be.

  2. We’ve seen this before in writing and exhibition practice from Lu Yinghua: her focus on “individualized” working methods appears radical only if you can sympathize with her particular position within Chinese art, while for the rest of us, as you so aptly describe, it reads only as a paean to “individuated” and aspirational subjectivities of global capitalism.

    I expect you’ve seen the news already that she’s just accepted the position Huang Zhuan will be vacating in OCAT?

    • Hi Robin, it is so difficult to unlearn one’s privilege. I continue to think of the US and PRC as the same country in part because both are unthinkably large assemblages that make it all too simple to remain focused on one’s individual trajectory, ignoring systemic effects, like how much money and international logistics are necessary to mount a biennale with international artists, who were flown in to install their pieces. So yes, it will be interesting to see what she does with the position, especially given that Huang Zhuan had made a conscious decision to stay small and in its next incarnation, OCAT is going very, very large.

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