Over the past few weeks I’ve begun a series of interviews for the “Uncut Talks” sound magazine, a project initiated by the artist Ma Yongfeng of forget art. At this point I thought I would pull together the first three interviews which (coincidentally) have all been with Chinese sound artists and musicians. Future interviews will venture into other creative fields. Ma Yongfeng and the Italian curator and artist Alessandro Rolandi have also added their own interviews to the Uncut Talks site, so please take a moment and check them out, I think there is something for everyone there!
Recently I was asked by the Chinese publication, BazaarArt, for my choice of favourite artwork of the last year. It was obviously a very difficult choice, but the artist Ma Yongfeng’s work stood out for me. Here are the original responses I gave to BazaarArt:
The name of your favorite art work of 2012:
“Invest in Contradiction” by Ma Yongfeng
When and where did you find this art work?
At the Bernard Controls factory, on the outskirts of Beijing.
Why does this particular item become your “love of the year”?
In amongst the complacency indicative of a broad swathe of art production in China and its lack of meaning outside its own closed community, Ma Yongfeng’s work stands out for its willingness to take some intelligent and provocative risks with form and context. “Invest in Contradiction” came about as a result of his being invited to take part in the unique and far-sighted “Social Sensibility R&D Program.” This program has been developed by the Italian artist and curator Alessandro Rolandi as a series of artist placements at Bernard Controls, a small engineering factory on the outskirts of Beijing. Having spent time with the workers to understand the situation his work would have to exist within, Ma’s contribution became a series of stenciled or graffiti’ed statements dispersed throughout the building. The messages were culled from the artist’s own observations of the reality of the workplace, as well as from conversations with the workers. “Invest in Contradiction,” which Ma prominently stenciled on the workshop wall, is an adaptation of the company’s official slogan: “Invest in Confidence.” Of course, it’s a very real risk that where an artist is asked to produce work as a direct reaction to spending a short period of time amongst their audience, the resulting work simply patronizes them without really creating any mutual communication. In this case though, Ma’s slight adjustment to the official statement adds a touch of humor and a little bit of a utopian vision to this prosaic workplace.
GROW Food Justice Global Campaign China Launch Ceremony: Food Art Exhibition, curated by Xia Yanguo
PIFO New Art Gallery, B-11, 798 Art Area, No.2 Jiuxianqiao Rd, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China
11 – 20 August, 2012
[Author’s note: I acted as an unpaid consultant for the GROW Campaign at an early stage, however I have had no involvement with this show at PIFO Gallery]
Food Art Exhibition at PIFO New Art Gallery, organised by the international charity Oxfam as part of their global “GROW” campaign, aims to raise awareness of poverty in relation to production and access to food, but the art exhibition on show raises issues with the effectiveness of this form of presentation.
Although art shows to promote charitable issues have worthy intentions that should in most cases be supported, there is a troublesome tendency for the art to be the least considered part of the affair. In the face of the important or urgent issues to be supported, the artworks often appear irrelevant or ineffectual, and there is a tendency to favour unproblematic or vague artistic responses to avoid distracting from the issue. Given art’s potential as a creative medium one would hope that it could play an important part in productively contributing to the issues, rather than simply acting as a background or window-dressing.
Alessandro Rolandi’s Social Sensibility R&D Program at BERNARD CONTROLS S.A. in Beijing
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.”
Not Only A Taoist Troublemaker! group show
za jia lab, Hong’En Daoist Temple, Doufuchi Hutong, Dongcheng District, Beijing
20 – 23 November, 2011
Not Only A Taoist Troublemaker! was a short-lived exhibition occupying a leaf-strewn room in a small arts space attached to a bar. A bar with a vegetable market behind; sharing a building that housed a screw factory during the Cultural Revolution. A screw factory built inside a Taoist temple, replacing the site’s original Buddhist temple. This overlapping of every kind of ideology provided an ideal backdrop for the six artists’ work in this show curated by forget art.
forget art is an organisation created by artist Ma Yongfeng, about whose “guerrilla” tactics I have written once before on ArtSlant. It has become well-known for the ironic nature of its exhibitions, interventions, and projects. These activities are knowingly aware of themselves and their contexts, and never take these or themselves too seriously.
What we are watching here is a video work from 2002 entitled The Swirl by Chinese artist Ma Yongfeng. This 15 minute video is one of Ma’s very first works at a point where he was displaying an interest in using what might be seen as futile behaviours, as a means of pricking the fabric of reality, and questioning it’s assumptions. Ma has more recently become known for his minimal interventions in daily life and socially aware services, but at the point at which this video was produced, these interests were still nascent.
Well, I can’t ignore the video anymore, and that of course is its problematic – this traumatic activity which is presented to us – these fish which are due for quite a ride, as we will see.
As the commentator for this work, and ostensibly representative of it and of the artist, the unfolding of the piece makes it tempting to expound my own strong opinions about the treatment of animals, which could come into conflict with my respect for the artist. But neither Ma, nor—I guess—you, as the audience, will thank me for making such apologies. What’s done is done, and we (the audience as well as the artist) must deal with the consequences.
Alibi 不在场 (curated by Wang Yifei)
Linda Gallery, 797 Street B Zone, 798 Art District, 2 Jiuxianqiao Lu, 100015 Beijing
4 June – 3 July, 2011
“Alibi,” the title in English of this group show at Linda Gallery in Beijing’s 798 Art District, seems so much more evocative than the Chinese title《不在场》which the essay by curator Wang Yifei translates as “Being Absent.” Although the adherence to the title seems a little weak at times, this show presents artists working with an absence of some sort. That being a very broad subject, the results take many forms and directions, and overall the show brings together an interesting selection of works, with some standout pieces.
Staying initially with the curator’s text, there are some points there that I think bear notice. Unsurprisingly, given where we are, the text does not delve too far into any of the contemporary social realities of “being absent.” Describing it in general terms as “like a conspiracy, an escape or a way of self-liberation.” To me this places the focus more on an individual’s agency in the matter and less on absence as a result of outside circumstances.