ArtSlant: Strength in Numbers?

SEE/SAW: Collective Practice in China Now (curated by Paula Tsai)

UCCA, 798 Art District, No.4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China 100015

20 November – 30 December, 2012

SEE/SAW is billed as the prelude to the show ON/OFF, which will open at UCCA in January 2013. ON/OFF promises to be a rather exciting group show of young Chinese artists over the whole of UCCA’s spaces. SEE/SAW though occupies just a small part of this institution’s gallery spaces, to address the phenomena of artist groups recently in China. While groupings of artists have always existed, not least in China, this way of working has become a very visible feature of artists’ practice here over the past few years, seeming to gain ground in terms of their sheer number, as well as their increasing appearance in galleries. While some of the groupings might be problematic in terms of their reasons for existing, this has become a valuable and powerful method by which artists assert their solidarity and power within the art world here.

SEE/SAW works with a rapid series of presentations: two or three groups create new installations every week, over a period of six weeks. By and large the groups have created new installations, either in situ or site-specific works and performances, or new performance/documentation pieces displayed in the space along with related objects. An example of the former would be the first week’s Double Fly Art Center, creating a large scale wall painting executed on site; of the latter, an example would be 8mg’s video of each member of the group upsetting the status quo by carrying a vaguely threatening brick from UCCA around Beijing and back to the gallery. In at least one case the groups have used the space to present selections of previous work. Into this category would fall Art Praxis Space with their photographic and video documentation of interviews and activities around urban and rural China.

This installation by Art Praxis Space brings up what could be seen as a problematic of the group method, as—in this case—each piece of their group presentation is attributed to an individual member of the group rather than to the group as a whole. This is of course their prerogative, but it raises the question of what it means to be part of a group, the nature of the relationships and decision-making process within the structure of a group?

In some presentations as part of SEE/SAW members of the groups are subsumed into the whole. With 8mg, for example, although we see each member performing the task they have set themselves, they all work together on the activity, and the overall product is presented as a production of the group. This is also true for Museum of Unknown, whose members are usually never seen in the works themselves. This work played on the status of the institutional space versus the commercial space, by transplanting works from a commercial gallery nearby into this show. The works remained on sale, existing as usurpers in the not-for-profit spaces of UCCA. The three members of the group ZUZHE also seem to work closely together, in this case presenting a series of videos of dramatizations of famous performance art works, explained to and performed by Guangzhou schoolchildren. For Art Praxis Space, it is clear that each individual keeps their identity as a separate artist, while choosing to display their work together with the other members of the group. North Village Independent Workshop from Chengdu are more exactly a group of individuals, their community a result of the sharing of a workspace, and here presenting some nice works which I hope to see more of in the ON/OFF exhibition. A middle way might be that of Irrelevant Group, who jointly agree on a task/topic, but work individually (often with their own families, so the results are very personal to each member of the group), and then bring their individual results back into the context of the group without explicitly naming each individual’s contribution.

All this reflects the pragmatism that marks out the reality of groups: they do not necessarily feel bound by any particular formats and will adopt whichever method suits them. In many cases the members of the group fluctuate, so the group name often serves as the only consistent element.

While there are many interesting presentations in SEE/SAW, and it is a great opportunity to learn about some rarely seen groupings, overall the show suffers from its own form and (in some cases) its subjects. The fact that in many cases all we see are a limited number of works, produced on the day (or so) before each week’s opening or are on-going over the course of the week, makes background information important for an adequate understanding of what can at times seem arbitrary activities. Unfortunately only a small amount of explanatory textual information is available to the public that may be down the open nature of the brief, preventing forward planning.

Criticism might also be levelled at the groups themselves. Some form simply as extensions of college friendships, as is to be expected. But if those groups represent little more than comfortable relationships, that does not equate to a valid reason for an art group’s existence, or at least these niceties should be drawn attention to in show’s overall presentation. One would hope that a grouping would add up to more than the sum of its parts, but one wonders if some of these collectives are leading to lowest common denominator practices, where the strengths of each artist is subsumed to the greater “good.”

Despite these issues—or maybe even because of them—SEE/SAW is a wonderful opportunity to learn about these groups, how they can form and exist, and to witness how they actually work in reality.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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