ArtSlant: What, Then, Can Art Be?

The 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale: “Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World” (curated by Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu, Su Wei)

OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, Enping Road, Overseas Chinese Town, Nanshan District, Shenzhen, China

12 May – 31 August, 2012

Following their Little Movements exhibition in the same venue last year (which I reviewed on at the time), the curatorial group of Liu Ding, Carol Yinghua Lu and Su Wei return to Shenzhen’s OCT Contemporary Art Terminal to undertake the broader task of a biennale. Despite retaining the moniker of “Sculpture,” this seventh iteration of the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale has less to do with sculpture as a distinct discipline, than with what amounts to a renewed opportunity for the curators to expand on the theories and practices they had expounded in Little Movements.

The choice of the rather contrary title Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World positions this Biennale as a clear statement against large-scale trends or movements. The idea that art imparts, or is itself, an “accidental message” is a troubling but simultaneously interesting proposition given the current state of art. It is troubling in that (aside from the obvious questioning of historical impetus), having thus placed art-making as an “accidental” communication, the curatorial process itself seems to made problematic. This position appears antagonistic to the assumption that a show is curatorially held together with a clear theme or relation.

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4/6: Breathing by Song Dong (2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale)

To celebrate the opening of the 2012 Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, which opened last Saturday, all this week I’ll be posting texts that I wrote for the catalogue of said exhibition. In this fourth piece, of the six in total, I talk about the fact that many of Song Dong’s works deal with the traces we leave and the access that gives us to the perpetrators.


Colour photography, 1996

These twinned photographs record two actions performed by Song Dong in Beijing during the winter of 1996. Alternately laying face down in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square (the de facto locus of recent political history in China) and then on the frozen surface of Houhai Lake (one of the man-made lakes fringing the Western edge of the Forbidden City, to the North-West of Tian’anmen Square), in each case Song simply breathed for 40 minutes onto the surface in front of his face. In the sub-zero temperatures of those winter nights his warm, moist breath formed a crust of ice on the flagstones in the former location, but reportedly had little effect on the lake’s thick ice. By the morning all trace of these activities had disappeared leaving these photographs behind as their record.

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GeoSlant: Alessandro Rolandi

Alessandro Rolandi’s Social Sensibility R&D Program at BERNARD CONTROLS S.A. in Beijing

Guillaume Bernard and Alessandro Rolandi at Bernard Controls

When asked about her working environment, one worker said she would like to feel the sun on her skin for a while – a simple but poetic request, fulfilled by moving her workstation outside the factory for a short period. Another worker took the opportunity to make a fluid sculpture out of the big barrel of grease he was using, giving it the title: “A piece of shit.” These little gestures came about as part of Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi’s Social Sensibility R&D Program, instituted in the factory of Bernard Controls S.A. on the outskirts of Beijing.

Bernard Controls is a French family-owned company producing specialist servo engines for operating valves in water pipes found in nuclear power stations, but also used in places like the Beijing Opera House and the Olympic Swimming Pool (AKA the “Water Cube”) in Beijing.

For a factory to embrace such a distraction from the serious business of production is down to the initiative of the boss, Guillaume Bernard, an engineer with a particular interest in corporate social responsibility. But while Bernard Controls already had a steering committee working to improve management personnel relationships using activities such as exhibition visits and music concerts, M. Bernard was looking beyond this. “He’s one step ahead,” Rolandi says. “He’s an engineer, not a psychologist, sociologist, or a philosopher. We talked a lot about this, and he seems genuinely open to more socially aware activities, which I related to relational practice within the art world.”

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ArtSlant: Two Artists and a Mentor

“Curated By Song Dong” Ma Qiusha: Address & Wang Shang: Sleuthing

UCCA Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 798 Art District, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China 100015

16 July – 8 September, 2011

It feels like curation has become somewhat undisciplined. “Good” curation, in my experience, is distinguished by a thoughtful and productive presentation and response to the works selected. I realise this plays down the more academic aspects related to working with collections in, say, a museum context. But in the environment in China where there is little institutional support for serious curation (at least of contemporary art), you take what you can get.

However, that rather negative preamble is by way of introducing a show that ultimately restores my faith in the possibilities of curation. I think we are fortunate to see the artist Song Dong put in the position of curator as part of UCCA’s “Curated by…” series, running concurrently with his own solo show next door. His choice to present Ma Qiusha and Wang Shang, with whom he has worked since they were very young, shows the results of a long-term commitment, and the opportunity for an extended understanding of their collective work based on this relationship.

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ArtSlant: Will the Pace Beijing Curator Please Stand Up?

Beijing Voices: Together or Isolated

Pace Beijing, 798 Art District, Beijing, China

30 December, 2010 – 28 February, 2011

Although at first glance an example of the stopgap shows thrown up during Beijing’s slow season of Christmas through Chinese New Year, Pace Beijing have laid on a group show with grander aspirations. Beijing Voices: Together or Isolated addresses recent questions about the development of gallery shows in Beijing and the role of curators in general, but cuts the rug from under its feet with its confused presentation.

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ArtSlant: Kitchen Catastrophes

Review of Song Dong: A Blot on the Landscape at Pace Beijing

Pace Beijing, 798 Art District, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, 100015 Beijing, China

October 30 – December 18, 2010

The new series of video works by Song Dong on show at Pace Beijing continue the artist’s playful experiments with impermanence and the illusory nature of everyday objects, but are ultimately let down by a lackluster installation.

Pace Beijing have devoted a large section of their space to showing these four new video projections. Arranged asymmetrically, one on each wall in the large darkened space, these short videos begin with artful arrangements of foodstuffs in tableau which hark back to traditional Chinese landscape paintings or shanshui penjing 山水盆景 (tray-based arrangements of materials representing idealized landscapes). In Song Dong’s case strips of smoked salmon or a butchered pig make for fleshy terrain; cut fruit, green peppers, or broccoli stand in for verdant hills and shorelines.

Over the course of the videos various tragedies take place in these worlds. Hands from above wield knives, choppers or blow-dryers, and proceed to aggravate the landscape, toppling the parsley trees, slicing the fruit and meat formations in their destructive rampage until all is laid waste and we are left with the raw materials stripped back. But in the same way that the micro is initially interpreted as macro—foodstuffs as landscapes—we still feel the urge to remap these interventions as natural phenomena, tsunami, earthquake, or war.

Song Dong’s work has consistently dealt with this urge, confronting these delusions of fixed meanings through various tactics. Works such as Breaking Mirror (1999), Crumpling Shanghai (2000) and Burning Mirror (2001), present an image of reality destroyed in the way indicated by the titles, physically exposing the image for what it is. The new works are a continuation of a series taking food as their material, either in videos such as Eating Landscape (2005), where a fish-head vista is picked apart by chopstick-wielding hands; or, large-scale installations of cityscapes formed of sweets, consumed by the audience over the course of the exhibition.

An interesting counterpoint to the works at Pace Beijing is fortuitously on display at Beijing Center for the Arts this month in the group show “H2O.” Touched 100 Years (2010) presents 100 small monitors each showing a well-known photograph from world history, one for each year from 1910 to 2010. Every so often a hand brushes across the photo, disturbing the surface and revealing it to be a layer of water between the photograph and camera. The hand disappears off-screen, the water settles, and once again the photo is clear – but the clarity of the image and the ability to gain knowledge through touch has been thrown into doubt by this simple gesture. Whereas Touched 100 Years presents the image as a point of return interrupted by the process of disruption, A Blot on the Landscape offers no such restoration of the image.

The installation of Touched 100 Years, with its floor-hugging chain of videos snaking around the walls of the gallery,feels entirely appropriate to the extent of the piece – something which unfortunately cannot be said of the installation at Pace Beijing. It’s difficult to see how the four video projections of A Blot on the Landscape successfully occupy the amount of space they are required to fill. It is as if the installation feels it must make up for a lack in the works themselves, which may indeed be the case as these are only modest developments over Song Dong’s previous works. I feel this conflict between the arrangement and the works detracts from the overall experience, diluting the works. The weakness of the installation is mirrored in the weakness of the wall text introducing the works. This “Preface”—in pride of place as the contextualization for the works within the Gallery—seems to bear little direct relation to the works on display. Ultimately textual vagueness and contradictions, coupled with a weak installation do the artist and his works little service.

Author: Edward Sanderson

Chinese art market confidence

ArtTactic, Chinese Art Market Confidence Survey, Dec 2009

If anyone has a copy of this report, I would be very interested in taking a look (I might even cook you dinner). It would be fascinating to know what their criteria are for measuring “sentiment.” The report appears to look at a good range of artists1, so each one’s comparative results would be interesting to see. I’ve been hearing (mainly from auction results, so that’s pretty selective) that established names are recovering quickly, but the market for younger, less established artists is struggling (as one would expect). Most people I’ve talked to about this subject see these periodic downturns as, by and large, a “good” thing. I’m not denying the pain involved, but it’s a time in which everyone is forced to re-focus on their core strengths and if these aren’t sustainable then, perhaps, it’s time to move on.

The confidence in the Chinese Contemporary art market has strengthened significantly since February 2009, and is now back above the 50 level. The ArtTactic Confidence Indicator has increased from 16 in February 2009, to 57 in November 2009. The current level signals that there is more positive than negative sentiment in the art market. This is the first contemporary art market that ArtTactic has surveyed since the downturn, in which the Confidence Indicator has come in above the 50 level, which implies that the Chinese art market could be one of the quickest to recover.2

  1. Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang, Cao Fei, Chen Wenbo, Fang Lijun, Feng Mengbo, Feng Zhengjie, Gu Dexin, Gu Wenda, He Duoling, He Yunchang, Hong Hao, Li Shan, Li Songsong, Liang Shaoji, Lin Tianmiao, Ling Jian, Liu Wei (B. 1972), Liu Xiaodong, Liu Ye, Lv Shenzhong, Mao Yan, Nie Mu, Qiu Zhijie, Shi Jinsong, Song Dong, Sui Jianguo, Tan Ping, Wang Gongxin, Wang Guangyi, Wang Jianwei, Wang Qingsong, Wang Wei, Wang Xingwei, Wu Shanzhuan, Xu Bing, Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, Yang Shaobin, Yin Xiuzhen, Yu Hong, Yue Minjun, Zeng Fanzhi, Zhan Wang, Zhang Dali, Zhang Huan, Zhang Peili, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhong Biao, Zhou Tiehai, Zhou Xiaohu.
  2. ArtTactic (2009), Chinese Art Market Confidence Survey, Dec 2009. Retrieved from on 12 January 2010.