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.

However, it is interesting for precisely this reason, in that the position breaks down a view of art that homogenises a set of works on an over-reliance on pre-existing or overly simplified patterns and ideas—“…to the point that artists have come to unconsciously conform to these names…” (from the catalogue)—the show even seems to be saying that such a view should be held as more or less irrelevant to the works themselves.

So how does this apply to the two sections of the show: “Unexpected Encounters” and “What You See is What I See”? The former looks back to art making in the ‘90s in China with a combination of artworks and documentation from “big” names including Sui Jiangguo, Zhang Xiaogang, Song Dong, Lin Yilin, Xu Bing, Zhang Peili, etc., etc. The artists from this era have now been safely ensconced in the art historical (and in many cases commercial) art worlds, and perhaps deserve of a bit of reassessment in the context of a focus on their individual works, and within close proximity to more recent generational work. The latter section presents this more recent work, both from within China and abroad, in a self-confessed subjective selection by the curators, bringing together works that they have seen on their travels.

However, these categories—although a strong organisational feature for the selection and a structural feature of the catalogue—are not respected in terms of their presentation “on the ground.” The works from both sections are mixed up over the various buildings and outdoor spaces of OCT. The catalogue for Accidental Message then becomes an essential extension of the show in its formalisation of the categories. This mixing of the artworks is a feature seen before in the Little Movements show, whose catalogue also served a purpose of extending the installation conceptually and temporally beyond the physical and temporary exhibition, through the structure of the book.

Such consistent structural features demonstrate the curators’ ongoing path of investigation into the subject of the small developments that each artist undertakes within the broader context of the art world.

There are simply too many good works and artists to feasibly mention here (but if you were to push me to choose a highlight, I would single out the opening performance by Yan Xing, A History of Reception, the remains of which now live on in a pseudo-museological installation), and indeed it is noteworthy that overall the experience of the show is fairly uniform, relying less on spectacular highlights than on a placid presentation of all the works, placing them all on a relatively equal footing. The artworks’ dispersion across the various venues and lack of strong physical organisation help in this respect.

So is this “accidental message” just that? Does it deny any possibility of a controlling communication? Does it obviate hegemonic control structures, such as those on which art and ideology are based? Are the curators’ intentions in themselves a structure, but deceptively packaged otherwise?

I think these are all interesting questions thrown up by Accidental Message, which succeeds by raising them, and as it departs from a Biennale model built around multiple crises of spectacle, to create a more consistent and considered approach to the works. The question remains though: if “Art is Not a System, Not a World,” what does that leave us with? In the past, if art in general, or certain artworks, have been justified by the fact they form, or are presented as part of, a “system” or a “world,” then will these particular works be seen as lacking under this new perspective and disappear from the canon? But ultimately I read the curators’ approach as less of a wholesale reassessment of art history, than as a way forward, taking cognisance of the context we are now in of a reaction to a “globalised” workspace that has shifted the means of art interpretation away from major drifts and towards these local skirmishes.

Author: Edward Sanderson

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ArtSlant: What, Then, Can Art Be? by escdotdot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

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