were we ever here?

I’ve been thinking about memory and how narrative turns what we think happened into something we can use to change what we think might happen, which in turn had me remembering bits and pieces of Four Quartets, TS Eliot’s wonderful meditation on time and its meaning, time as a fundamental yearning to be complete despite transience, impermanence, this movement, this quickening which is also movement toward death:

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die.

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Digging a Hole in China

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the Digging a Hole in China (事件的地貌) exhibition, curated by Venus Lau. the exhibition features a range of works that were produced from the mid-1990s forward, roughly a decade after the idea of land art had been picked up by Chinese artists and only a few years after Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, where he confirmed that China would continue to liberalize its economy. The stated goal of the exhibition, which positions itself between China and the West is,

[T]o expose and analyze the discrepancies between this genre of work and ‘conventional’ land art understood in the Western-centric art historical context, thereby probing the potential of ‘land’–as a cultural and political concept–in artistic practice.

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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.”

Textual Logic: life as gerund

For me calligraphy has been one of the real pleasures of learning Chinese. Indeed, even when I can’t read what I’m seeing, I enjoy trying to following the line and figure out the character. Yesterday morning as part of the Textual Logic (书与法) exhibition at the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal there was a calligraphy performance by Qiu Zhenzhong (邱振中) and Wang Dongling (王冬龄). So I was kind of “wow, calligraphy onstage. Fun.” However, it turned out that I had approached the event naively; calligraphers may or may not be fun, but the event felt like a cross between a movie star press conference and an art seminar.

The audience for the calligraphy performance was not OCAT’s typical audience who tend to have western aesthetics and a passion for conceptual art. Instead, the audience (not including the calligraphers’ respective entourages) was made up of calligraphers and folks who might be classified as calli-groupies, whose comments ranged from how the room had been set up through how the ink was mixed to how difficult it was or was not to write at this scale for so long. Indeed, it was a happy, almost fair-like event with pauses for watching and then commenting. Needless to say, the audience also complained that photographers and videographers had been given front row positions and could follow the calligrapher.

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The level of audience participation in the exhibition struck me wonderful.  Continue reading

Body Work

Short comments on two dance pieces that I saw at the OCAT contemporary dance festival 2010. Both pieces were intensely personal responses to objective reality – here, objective reality in the sense of “can not be changed”, and personal response as “adapting to” and eventually “overcome by” said reality.

First, 朗诵 (recitation or reading) from 纸老虎喜剧工作室 (Paper Tiger Theatre Studio, 2010). Here, objective reality to the form of tests, descriptions from medical textbooks, lists, newspaper articles – printed matter that is taken to accurately represent reality. Direct Tian Gebing’s (田戈兵) response subjected five, young and amazingly fit young men to difficult motions that they repeated until the men were obviously exhausted. In one movement series, for example, the dancers stood at the back of the stage, back to the audience, arms and legs stretched into an X. While one or several read the text, one or several would bend from the knees backward until collapsing with a thud onto the floor. He / they then pushed themselves forward, leaving a wake of sweat. He / they abruptly jumped up. Returned to the back of the stage. Stood in the X position and began again. And yes, the thud was important. Most of the sound for the performance was thumping bodies. For over an hour. Through a rain storm. All the while the dancers clutched pages of text that they continuously read out loud. Until two pairs of dancers sat on two chairs, cradling the partner, who continued to read. Between, around, and behind the seated pairs, a lone dancer continued to dance.

Second, 治疗 (medical treatment, 2008) from 生活舞蹈工作室 (Living Dance Studio). In this piece, objective reality was the suffering and eventual decay and death of the human body. Choreographer Wen Hui (文慧), Wu Wenguang (吴文光), several other studio members, and Shenzhen residents performed the experience of dying and growing old despite medical treatment. The spark for this piece was the last 12 days of a mother’s life. The piece began with a young girl playing with motorized shoes that hummed around the stage throughout the show. One by one, studio dancers and audience members came onstage and then painstakingly moved from the back of the stage to the front. While watching I felt caught somewhere between Noh and Waiting for Godot because dancers held contortions effortlessly, with the end result of relentless pessimism. Indeed, I felt distressed not only because performers used over an hour to move about 50 meters, but also because by the end of the show about 30 or so slow moving, contorted figures had overtaking the space where the one girl – and halfway through the piece it was clear she was the only young, healthy body onstage – continued to keep the motorized shoes moving.

Youth exhausted. Spent in industrial repetitions. Relentless pages of knowledge that never made the movement easier. A single girl. A slow, determined, frightening accretion of misshapen, yet still oozing forward bodies.

Interestingly, although these two pieces provide insight into the experience of China’s boom, I am more interested in how these pieces continue and expand upon the general nihilism of modernist art, when its not being over the top utopian. Living in Shenzhen, we are used to this relentless exhaustion of bodies and the seemingly unlimited replacement bodies that slip onstage and remain unnoticed except and until a critical mass forms. But Shenzhen also thrives on the experience, the energy before one steps into the vortex of change. The threshold moment, when we turn from the past and leap into all that is possible – plans can’t keep up with change, here.

I keep thinking about sighs and the expression 没办法 – no way out as the experience of work and meeting the demands of family and friends by way of exhausting work situations. And I’m wondering when all this exhaustion becomes something other than resignation and nihilism. In this sense, I remain skeptical of any assertion that the only response to “objective reality” is resilient adaptation unto decay. Noticing this reality, yes, step one. But I yearn for alternative second steps.