Yishu Journal: ON | OFF – China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice

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Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, 798 Art District, Beijing

January 13–April 14, 2013

With ON I OFF, an extensive group show that occupied all of the exhibition spaces at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing, curators Bao Dong and Sun Dongdong attempted to come to grips with the ongoing issue of rationalizing the latest round of artists to have emerged on the Chinese visual arts scene over the past few years. They chose to pursue a course of highlighting what they see as the diversity of current art production in China. The curators framed this diversity as a distinctive trait of the Chinese art environment, a trait they say works against generalizing views, describing the exhibition as an expression of “polyphony” and “multiplicity.” They go so far as to characterize contemporary art in China as “a series of encounters,” each of which must be taken on its own merits, also claiming that “any artistic practice is yet another attempt at defining the scope of practice itself.” As a result, contemporary art practices can be understood neither from “a sociological perspective—seeing [them] as evidence of any number of social realities and ideologies”—nor “by way of the so-called internal logic of artistic language and method.”1

In the exhibition format of ON I OFF itself, the curators deliberately attempted to reflect this understanding of the contemporary art world in China. Its fifty participating artists (or, in three cases, a duo of artists) were presented in what might be described as a “flat” format in the sense that there was no articulation by category, theme, or highlight. That said, despite the curators’ premise of multiplicity and the consequent lack of logical organization in the gallery spaces themselves, it was possible to pick out particular connections among the artworks.

Several artists’ work displayed an interest in investigating form or material, a a manifestation of a kind of “internal logic” that the curators apparently dismissed. The painterly abstractions of both Xie Molin and Wang Guangle, which, while using diametrically opposed techniques—Xie Molin has developed a machine to create the evenly-spaced furrows in the thick, multi-hued painted surfaces of Ji No. 4 (2012) and Inconsistent Output No. 6 (2012); while Wang Guangle labouriously hand-paints subtle progressions of coloured pigments, layer after layer, to create physical stacks of paint on the canvases121101 (2012) and 121102 (2012)—share a concern with the physicality of paint. In Heiqiao Tower of Babel (2012) and The Unknown Shimmering at the Edge of the World (2012) by Li Shurui, multiple canvases depicting shimmering interference patterns were connected to create structures that invaded the spaces in which they were installed. Liang Yuanwei’s paintings of repeating floral motifs, Pisces (left) (2011), and Pisces (right) (2012), retain an element of process-based activity in their creation, as these motifs were meticulously picked out from a gradation of colour travelling from the top to the bottom of the canvas. At first glance these repetitions appear cool and unemotional, yet the patterns apparently relate to clothes worn at significant events in the artist’s life.

[To read the full article, please pick up a copy of the Journal or visit the Yishu website]

艺术界LEAP: Wang Mai – Dire Straits

Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

2012.07.22–2012.08.30

Art can tell us something about its world, and at the same time it can tell us something about our world. Aside from what we ourselves bring to the table, the artwork can do this by being clear or opaque in its meaning, both experiences worthwhile in their unique ways. However, where the artwork is opaque or self-absorbed, if it cannot or will not provide a space for the viewer to relate to it, this then becomes problematic. There is a suspicion that Wang Mai’s new exhibition, with its complex symbolic objects and imagery, no matter how visually interesting an experience it might be, is problematic in this way.

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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.

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ArtSlant: Death for Show

Good Luck: Guest solo show

Hemuse Gallery, 3-038, North Area, Pinggod Shequ, 32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100022

17 July – 4 August, 2012

In some ways there’s really not a lot to say about this show. The elements of the show are seemingly simple, based around a short video loop showing a woman in a hospital bed speaking the words “Good Luck” and the execution of the show is kept restrained with just some medical notes, a contract and a wall text.

The woman in the bed is in fact dying. For the exhibition the artists paid this woman’s family 2000RMB (US$314) to purchase her announcement of the phrase “Good Luck” (or, more literally, “wish you success”). The handwritten contract is a record of this transaction, the woman’s case history notes in metal hospital clipboards record her own state of health, and the wall text provides the context: “On July 5th, 2012, members of guest paid Sheng Mingfeng, a patient on her deathbed at a hospital in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, to say the phrase ‘Good Luck.’”

As with the best conceptual work, where this show becomes effective is in the ramifications of this act by the artists. The effects of this presentation—while uncomfortable—deserve attention, in that we, the audience should be aware of our own assumptions with the subject matter. Good Luck also deserves attention because this piece threatens to slip into a particular way of thinking by artists in general, an aloofness from the sources and consequences of their work that can be problematic at best, and sociopathic at worst.

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ArtSlant: UCCA Blows Up

Zhan Wang: My Personal Universe

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

26 November, 2011 – 25 February, 2012

In what might be read as a change in direction for Zhan Wang, the new large-scale installation at UCCA broadens his works’ outlook from the establishment of monuments to the creation of the universe as creative material. In the process the artist addresses some big questions about our place in the universe, but ultimately manages to lose his sympathetic connection with the human body.

His long-running Artificial Rock series of scholars’ rocks recreated in stainless steel now dot the world, playing with the role of the monumental in public space. Critic Huang Du sees them as existing between tradition and modernity, and these contemporary versions of the traditional stones literally and symbolically reflect the appearance of whatever is around them in their polished forms. But this trope has now become ubiquitous, almost a cliché, so how does the artist progress?

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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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the “auto-” in creativity

Following on from the last post, I wanted to try and clarify my use of the prefix “auto-” to describe the types of sound that came up in the Subjam concert at UCCA. At the same time this will help put some meat on the bones of a project that I’m working on right now, a project whose subjects, and the arguments that I’m touching on in this post, cross over from the sonic arts to the visual.

By using “auto-” I was trying to suggest that the sounds had some kind of automatic, or non-human activity in its formation (although it would be a mistake to think that’s all I was interested in, but I’ll get to that later). In this case I mentioned “Auto-Generative” and “Auto-Destructive” sound, and although I used these terms in the title, I didn’t make it explicit in the text what they were referring to other than a vague idea of additive versus subtractive compositions (where I was tentatively linking the former to Zhang Jian and Wu Na, and the latter to William Basinski).

My use of the term Auto-Destructive is inspired by the work of Gustav Metzger (born US, but now stateless) and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Metzger popularised the term in 1959 with his First manifesto of auto-destructive art,1 as a general principle and a way to describe his performance works using nylon and acid, a lethal combination which resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the material of the works. In a similar vein, Jean Tinguely is well known for his elaborate machines which progressively destroy and undo themselves. Both artists were working towards a dematerialisation of the artwork, a throwing into question of assumptions of the object-status of the artwork at that time. This (non- or negative-)thing that results was also one of the focii of Conceptual art, Metzger and TInguely in this case having quite an influence on their thinking. In their work Metzger and Tinguely presented the process of dematerialisation as being an end in itself, literally performing the critique of the object in front of the audience.

From “Auto-Destructive” the antithesis I set up was “Auto-Generative.” In this case the word “generative” comes from its use as a form of musical composition, usually associated with computer music. I have been thinking recently in this regard specifically of the composers Conlan Nancarrow (US) and Edgard Varèse (France, US), whose work involved investigation of systems which, although of course “man-made” in their inspiration or initiation, in execution relied on the working through of a set of rules by mechanical means.

For generative work human intervention can simply be a starting point, from which systems can work themselves out, the “human touch” can be removed entirely from the actual act of music/noise making. The extent to which the human needs to be involved in the act of music/noise making is a very divisive issue. For some the human touch is pre-eminent, for others a hands-off approach is the interesting means and I think it is this subject that can be usefully pursued, an which my project is working from.

It’s an important part of the project, too, that there should be no restriction for this to sonic investigations, it can equally be applied to visual and other forms. Metzger’s words, for example, apply across the board:

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction… Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.2

I have to admit, setting up these polarities of “auto-generative” and “auto-destructive” is a deliberate straw-man tactic, to create a discursive environment for the project. They serve as ideals around which to drawing out the arguments involved in various artists’ methods. As such, I doubt any artist would commit themselves to one or the other exclusively, certainly not over their whole oeuvre (or even within a single piece of work). However what the use of these terms does do is to set up a field of argument, around which the various participants can set up their camps, like a set of Venn diagrams of creativity, covering more or less of each of the meanings in their practice and theory.

It’s early days yet, but as the project progresses, more information will get posted here.

  1. Metzger, Gustav (1959). Auto-Destructive Art [first manifesto of auto-destructive art; 4 November 1959]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].
  2. Metzger, Gustav (1960). Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art [second manifesto of auto-destructive art; 10 March 1960]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart3.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].