Critical Music 6: Interview with Li Jianhong and Wei Wei

Critical Music series: This series of posts focuses on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appear in many different guises, often related to concepts such as “experimental music” or “sound art”, although neither term is entirely satisfactory in describing the practices which often exist in many hybrid forms. My adoption of the term “critical music” (following the writings of G Douglas Barrett) attempts to avoid the limitations of these terms, while highlighting the active nature of the sound component of the practices. These posts will primarily take the form of interviews, each one aiming to place the subject within the general history of critical music practices in China, and contextualise their current practice within their overall development.

Welcome to the sixth interview in this series, and the last for a while. It’s a real pleasure and an honour to be able to publish this interview with Li Jianhong and Wei Wei, the couple who in their various ways have been central figures in the experimental music scene in China for many years. Originally from Hangzhou, Li and Wei Wei were both involved in the music scenes in that city before coming to Beijing around 2011. Since then they have been highly visible with their solo projects as well as performing together under the names Mind Fibre and Vagus Nerve. This interview concentrates on their early musical development, the 2pi Festival that Li founded in Hangzhou in 2003, and their thoughts about improvisation and the state of the experimental music scene in Beijing.

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Yishu Journal: A Potent Force – Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan


Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai
January 26–March 31, 2013

Under the all-embracing title of A Potent Force, curator Karen Smith presented the work of the Chinese artists Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum. Each artist was accorded two floors in which they were represented by a broad selection of works produced mainly since 2008. The umbrella title led one to perhaps expect some explicit connections between the two artists, but, for me, it was their differing backgrounds, styles, and sensibilities that came to be highlighted by their close proximity.

Taking the title as an indicator of her vision, Smith suggested that the phrase “A Potent Force” was designed “to intone the lyrical, introspective, and sentient intellectual process that characterizes these two subtle plays with painting (Duan Jianyu) and conceptual video and installation (Hu Xiaoyuan).”1 Smith proposed that this “force” “references the nature of both artists’ analysis of the world as they experience it.”2 The title, then, acted to express a general quality that resonated between the two artists’ work rather than a specific stylistic, formal, or conceptual attribute.

Smith describes A Potent Force as expressing “the force of socio-cultural shift in the margin of age that separates these two artists, which is underscored by the atmosphere in which they passed their formative years.”3 The “margin” she refers to here is the cusp between the differing experiences that mark the two artists’ generations – Duan Jianyu having been born in 1970 and Hu Xiaoyuan in 1977. As with many aspects of society in China’s recent history, such an apparently short period of time can represent the advent of massive social changes.

In the catalogue for the exhibition, Smith introduces Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan’s background and practices before approaching the artists individually, and she acknowledges their differences by characterizing them as “two strongly individual artists”4 and (regarding their productions) as displaying “unrelated approaches to expression: two distinct languages.”5 Smith characterizes Hu Xiaoyuan as “belonging to a generation that is past cynicism, and no longer cares so earnestly,”6 pitting these characteristics against those of Duan Jianyu’s – that Duan Jianyu’s generation remains cynical and (yet) still cares “earnestly.”

Smith seems to be arguing that the connection between Duan Jianyu and Hu Xiaoyuan is related to the concurrence of the periods in which they grew up and developed their practices. The respective eras in which the two artists were born, Smith proposes, mark two sides of a dividing line between one generation and the next. It appears that Smith aims to cast this generational “margin” as a focus of the exhibition, located in between these two artists’ productions.

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

ArtSlant: Sehgal’s Antics come to China

Taking the Stage OVER presents – Tino Sehgal

Minsheng Art Museum, Bldg F, No.570 West Huaihai Road, Shanghai

16 July – 14 August, 2011

In amongst the videos and installations by Zhang Peili at the Minsheng Art Museum (which I reviewed here last week), I also had a surprise encounter with the work of Tino Sehgal, whose works of performed discussions as institutional critique added an unusual perspective to the display of new media work.

Under the collective title “Taking the Stage Over,” curator Biljana Ciric has organised a year-long series of events for Shanghai. From July to September she has arranged for Sehgal to present pieces at MOCA Shanghai, then the Minsheng Art Museum, and finally the Rockbund Art Museum. On my visit to the Minsheng, “This is New” and “This is Exchange” had been “installed” in the reception area and in one of the galleries.

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ArtSlant: (Possibly) China’s First Video Art

Certain Pleasures: Zhang Peili Retrospective

Minsheng Art Museum, Bldg F, No.570 West Huaihai Road, Shanghai

16 July – 14 August, 2011

A short excursion to Shanghai from my usual territory of Beijing allowed for a quick visit to the Minsheng Art Museum, while dodging the storms presaging the arrival of typhoon Muifa. The Minsheng is a non-profit institution occupying a large warehouse-type set of spaces at the back of an off-street cultural area. It was established in 2008 by the China Minsheng Banking Corporation, and is currently hosting a large retrospective of the work of veteran new media artist, Zhang Peili.

What this exhibition does, inevitably in somewhat hagiographic terms, is support the notion of Zhang as one of the very first new media artists in China. From his beginnings in the mid ‘80s through to the present day, he has become an influential figure, now heading up the New Media Arts Center housed in a rather futuristic new building at the China Academy of Arts in Hangzhou. He is something of a father-figure for the new media arts scene here in China, a scene that goes to great pains to assert itself as an autonomous style and format amongst the often osmotic boundaries between the art forms of contemporary art in China.

Originally trained in oil painting, Zhang has developed a practice across video, filmed performance, installation, and actions, with a typically heavy conceptual backing. Early new media works by the artist can be seen to pick up on process practices from abroad, displaying durational and task based techniques, in most cases with few geographical or cultural specifics.

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I want to be Haibo (for an hour)…

Haibo characterIn Shanghai Expo news: their recruitment portal have started advertising for people to be “Mascot Handlers” i.e. you get to dress up in the blue suit as Haibo.

Tempting, and in theory kind of a dream job, perhaps. But you know it’ll be hell on earth in that suit in Shanghai in the Summer.

(and just in case the post is snapped up before you get to it, here’s a link to the job description)

New iPhone apps for China

Explore Beijing Subway map ($0.99/£0.59)

This is the latest release in exploremetro’s series of iPhone apps, complementing their online interactive maps, and Beijing’s turn follows the already released app for Shanghai (Guangzhou and Hong Kong versions are also due).

As with most of subway apps I’ve seen, the entry view is the overall plan of the routes. At first I was a little confused as there was no icon strip on the screen – all the other maps I had used relied on a menu bar to guide the user to the various functions. However this difference shows the creativity that has gone into this app, so much functionality has been incorporated into the map itself simplifying the interface as much as possible.

On the map you can find the important information you’ll need when taking these routes through Beijing, including bi-lingual subway names (plus audio recordings of the Chinese name to save any embarrassing pronunciation faux-pas); first and last train times in each direction and for each line the station serves; and an intuitive route planner with journey times and fares.

Some things which would be nice to see in an update would be information about entrances to the stations; the presentation of the routes could be a little clearer than just the orange dots as it is at the moment; and the ability to double-tap on the map to zoom in (a strange omission).

Overall, if I was a first-time traveller in Beijing, this would make travelling on the subway much less of the daunting experience it could be. And as a (relatively) seasoned traveller here, I’ll also be keeping this app on my iPhone as its ease of use beats the other Beijing subway apps I’ve tried. Recommended.

The Financial TImes Little Book of Business Travel (free)

In these straitened times, China is obviously still a business destination with potential, as evidenced by the fact that the Financial Times has entered the travel guide marketplace with their Little Book of Business Travel (LBBT) for China.

This simple app includes a fair amount of information and data about the cities of Beijing, Hong Kong/Macao and Shanghai as well as providing well presented background about various aspects of business life in China in general. Although not extensive, the level of the information is appropriately pitched at the requirements of the high end business traveller.

LBBT includes a series of articles by experts, including members of the FT team past and present, and various guest writers for added depth in some of the subjects. The app starts with background information about the country – covering the politics & economy, business etiquette, a China constitutional guide (facts and figures), a sheet of economic data and a map of the country. One criticism I have is that these last two are rather tricky to use – the data is presented on a single page which can’t be zoomed into, making reading difficult.

The app then covers the cities in more detail, addressing the essentials of transport, business info, sleeping and eating. These are essentially small directories of the better quality restaurants, hotels, and business services organisations, with a short review and basic data for each one. The “Activities” sections gives introductions to the various extra-curricular sides to the cities, from shopping, sightseeing, spas and culture, with some fair recommendations to start the visitor off.

Given my background I was interested to see how art faired within the FT’s scheme of things. Given the limited space available, art actually fairs pretty well, at least it is not completely excised – there is obviously hope for the future of this sector! In the section for Beijing, I noticed that 798 Art District gets it’s own small entry within the “Shopping” section, recommending that the “financial crash” makes it a “great time to look around and buy” there. It’s evident that 798 has found its niche as a shopping district rather than one of Culture (which forms another section dealing mainly with the performing arts and museums) for the app’s potential audience – which does lead to the anomaly that in the Hong Kong section you will find the Asia Art Archives also listed under Shopping – AAA being a library and archive which has no commercial side.

To begin with I was skeptical about this app. Its focus seemed very superficial, but the more I investigated its content the more I appreciated the solution FT had come up with for the mountain of data from which they had to choose. This app does not trying to rival the Lonely Planet or Rough Guides for example, the motives of its audience are quite different. Aside from my quibble about classifications, for the business person who still has enough cash after the crash, and not enough time to go in depth, this app will serve as a useful starting point.