A busy week in a frantic century

Tue, 18/06/2013 - 19:41 -- damien
Shanghai Biennale

The development of Shanghai since the central Government’s decision to make it the economic gateway to China in the early ’90s is the stuff of legends: half of the city has been razed to make way for over 200,000 high-rise apartment blocks; half the world’s cranes are in Shanghai; Asia’s tallest buildings; the world’s fastest train; World Expo in 2010; the Tennis Masters Cup; a Formula 1 Grand Prix; and of course a Biennale.

There is a model of the future city of Shanghai on public display in Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. The motto above it reads: ‘better city better life’. However, most Shanghai residents cannot find their homes, and probably cannot yet imagine their new lives in the imminent, tall towers that will cover the Huangpu delta. Urban development has created an uncertain, interstitial space between exponential developments to date and those still to come.

So it is the perfect time and place to question the success of the city’s design, and the 2006 Shanghai Biennale aimed to do so in its overarching theme of ‘HyperDesign’. Since 1989 the Biennale has measured the pace of the city’s development. The inclusion of international artists since 2000 has marked a symbolic opening up to the West, which has continued unabated. But there are still signs of a cautious and awkward engagement with the model of an international contemporary art event. Proposed work is vetted by committee and spies are supposedly at work during installation. An arcane committee structure includes five Committees with over seventy advisers. The title, too, seems formulaic (last time it was Universes in Universes) and, as Wang Jie unabashedly wrote in the Shanghai Daily, ‘Biennale as a Western concept, is difficult to implement in the east, as it’s not easy to infuse a simple art piece with profound Oriental philosophy and wisdom’.

But vagary may well link eastern and western intentions in the Biennale. Several of the European curators involved (Jonathon Watkins and Gianfranco Maraniello for instance) elucidated the theme straightforwardly in relation to specific examples of hybrid product design or interior design: Sylvie Fleury’s abstracted packaging design and commodity lustre resembled minimalist wall paintings and sculpures; Atelier van Lieshout’s modular sleeping unit above a desk awaited Biennale visitors; Tetsuya Nakamura’s car or jet-like sculptures distilled speed to its most appealing and pure commodity form. These and other works, including T-shirt designs by Jorge Pardo, graphic art by Julian Opie and traditional Chinese crafts by the Mindicraft Group, simply and effectively traded along the increasingly indistinct line between art and design.

However, several Chinese curators and advisers strove to remark the significance of the Biennale to the larger paradigm of urban planning (city design) in Shanghai and China’s historical and future development. According to Xu Jiang, Hyperdesign ‘emerges from the womb of Shanghai itself, incubated in the interstices between human existence and architectural development’; a Deleuzian dynamic zone of Shanghainese Flow according to Wonil Rhee; and since ‘Shanghai is the most designed city in China’, according to Huang Du, the Biennale provides ‘an open platform to consider Chinese cultural strategy and global cultural development’.

What might seem like faddish jargon on the one hand—’hyper this’ and ‘hyper that’—was recovered by the Chinese curators as a crucial phase in Shanghai’s re-emergence and ascendency as an international capital. As the third-largest trade city in the world in 1930s, Shanghai is now again one of the busiest ports in Asia, and the Biennale is certainly implicated; everything is. It is all linked in a grand scheme, on display down at the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

The Biennale was located in the former British Racecourse Clubhouse: an art deco centrepiece in Shanghai, testament to the international interests of the ’30s, flanked by the People’s Park on one side (which reclaimed the racetrack as communist greenspace in the ’60s), and Tomorrow Plaza on the other side, one of the tallest commercial buildings in the ‘new’ Shanghai. So at the outset, the enterprise is determined and located at this confluence in Shanghai’s development.

Various temporary interventions as part of the Biennale added to the mix. At one corner of the building, the Biennale replicated a corbel bracket from the Foguang Temple at Wutaishan built during the Tang Dynasty, the earliest, entirely timber construction remaining in China (a prototype of hyperdesign, the organisers claim). It protruded in mock support of the Deco weight above and around it: no bolts, simply a series of ornate wedges defying gravity. Inside the building Li Lihong, born in China’s porcelain heartland Jingdezhen, had tiled the rise on each step of the building’s grand staircase. When you looked up from the bottom, partial imagery on each step combined to reveal rising blue clouds of smoke, a symbol of China’s ascension.

Massimo Bartonlini raised the floor in one of the gallery storerooms by forty centimetres. The new floor, tiled in terracotta, grew around existing furniture and fittings—some things protruding, others covered up—like a flood-line, or as he says a ‘new horizon’; a sedimentary layer reflecting the acretion of time, one period over another. That kind of sedimentation was also featured in Wu Chi-Tsung’s elliptical ode to Paik, which on a giant live screen fedback to viewers the dust settling in front of a video camera; each drifting speck, like a star in the night sky, a fragment of time and space ineluctably succumbing to universal physical forces to combine. But another kind of sedimentation was reflected in Liu Jianhua’s cantilevered shipping container from which spilled into the gallery a candy-coloured cornucopia of cheap plastic goods, all manufactured in Yiwu. 1000 of these containers leave Yiwu every day bound for 212 different ports around the world, an unstoppable flow of commodities, much of it destined for landfill; China’s boom is based on low wages and living conditions in Yiwu, and pointless consumption elsewhere in the world.

All the while, Huang Kui was measuring attendance at the Biennale through large scales installed inside the doorway so that the cumulative weight of all who entered was tallied and displayed on an LED screen. Human interest per kilo is a curious measure which—in apparent deference to physics or structural engineering—reduces everything to pure mass. In forty-five days: 47,882,384 kilograms of visitors.

The Biennale satellite events, too, made sense as thiny veiled ciphers of China’s development. The prestigious private Shanghai Gallery of Art on the Bund bussed people to Zhang Jiang industrial estate on the edge of town, where several artists presented video, sound and projection work in the estate’s corporate headquarters. Visitors were off-loaded, fed, on-loaded and returned. Meanwhile, industrial activities from the estate were displayed in the city gallery; lens manufacturers or toolers working behind glass in little booths, videos of interviews with workers, promotional literature scattered on tables. There seemed little irony or critique, simply a genuine equivalence proposed—and literally traversed by the bus—between art and industry, both subordinate to the growth and (industrial) development of Shanghai.

The most significant satellite event, aptly titled Satellite, encapsulated the dependent relationship of art to the grand scheme. It brought together an international team of fifty curators and artists from China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and Thailand to present art, film and design exhibitions in different venues and spaces around the city. One of the art exhibition co-ordinators, Australian artist and curator Richard Thomas, clarified the purpose to ‘capitalise on the national and international publicity and attention garnered by the official event, which the local scene is usually starved of. The central motivation in staging a Biennale is to promote the particular city-state as a vibrant, happening, culturally-relevant centre in an international context.’ Symbiosis, parasitism, whatever, Satellite organisers wanted some part of the 47,882,384 kilograms of visitation that the Biennale attracted as a key event in the region.

Significantly, most of Satellite was also staged on land along the Huangpu River in the Yangpu District, slated for future development by the Shanghai Municipal Government, a sponsor of the project. Ex-factory spaces had been partially and stylishly renovated by Taiwanese architect/developer Deng Kunyan. And once again, highlights of the exhibition meshed with these local and determining conditions, site-specific responses best of all. Natasha Johns-Messenger reactivated an old water pipe within one of the galleries, which spurted forth in an arc across the space into a forty-four gallon drum from where it was pumped back into the pipe in perpetuity. The total amount of water balanced with gravity, the power of the pump, the diameter and length of hosing, forming a poetic, looping reverie on old and new industries at play in the reclaimed factory space.

Outside, Richard Thomas had heaped three tonnes of pig shit into a mound, festooned with fairy lights, lucky golden pigs and a Chinese opera singer with a lilting, sad voice. While China is famous for its pork dishes, the wealthy Shanghainese are renowned for their remove from agricultural exigency, and Thomas’s combination of high and low motifs in relation to the symbology of a lucky but dirty animal/main course provided a complex dilemma for local audiences.

Liu Bolin continued his series of self-portraits in which he is camouflaged against various locations thanks to excellent make-up and his own unstinting patience. In this case, the artist was almost indistinguishable from the dilapidated industrial surroundings. Head to foot, he was the colour of concrete, weeds and washed-out, faded blue paintwork. A chameleon wherever he works, Liu Bolin reflected the dissipating environment at Yangpu.

Kylie Wilkinson presented a two-screen video work based on interviews with Sydney and Beijing colleagues regarding their ideas of ‘nationalism’. The responses are screened side by side, an immediate comparison of the cultural difference between two countries (one emerging from a cruel communist era, the other entering a ultra-right dark-age). Occasionally—and with no didacticism or moralism—Wilkinson uncovers some common ground too (love of others, honour, family relations), hitting the bedrock which lies beneath the formation of any State.

Performance works, of course, engaged with the city environs directly, sometimes head-on. At the opening, Guy Benfield (channelling Marcus Lupertz) welcomed guests in a ritualised painting performance—dipping his false Fu-Manchu beard into bright orange acrylic, painting various props at hand—set to a saccharine best-of Chinese teahouse remix blaring from the found-but-transformed pagoda. Artist/impressario Danius Kesminas hooked up with local, nu-metal girl-band the Happy Strings to unleash 3 minutes of screaming, thrashing, finally expiring G in homage to Terry Riley’s ‘IN C’ from 1964 (after which Kesminas was dragged from the venue’s landscaped pondage like a creature from the black lagoon).

Later in the week, Sue and Phil Dodd performed their ‘gossip pop’, an elemental verse and chorus based on scurrilous media titbits (Kate Moss and cocaine, Kristy Allen’s weight, etcetera), at the Glamour Bar on the Bund, an apt venue since it refers in turn to Shanghai’s famous, seedy and glamorous past (Marlene Dietrich, opium dens, and so on).

Simon Morris provided a metronomic, repeating pattern that in potentia extended infinitely in all directions. He has re-made the work around the world. But in its immediate, limited application to one corner of a gallery in Shanghai, it provided a focal point, even a coda, of the converging patterns at large. I imagine each time and wherever the artist executes this wall painting, its abstract repeat assumes the local rhythms and pulses, which I am dedicating in this review to Shanghai’s urban development.

Other works by Australian artists included: a large-scale bust of a primate-cum-totalitarian-leader by Lisa Roet (although any reference to a Maoist/Marxist/Leninist cult of leadership was a little late for Shanghai); Julie Squire’s disassembled angel, with its head on a plinth, wings in a cage, and feathers scattered across the floor; Alan Dorin’s projected video-algorithm for disease and mutation; a video portrait by Brook Andrew You always wanted to be black; and a knitted textile wall hanging for an imagined first encounter between colonists and indigenes by Renee So, which substituted varying tension and DIY aesthetics for the aristocratic allure of court tapestry.

While it is certainly not easy to infuse art with profound Oriental wisdom, the Biennale did extrapolate to a strange and grand vantage point onto the world, in the manner of age-old wisdom like ‘life is short, art is long’. It reminded viewers of the small but accumulating gestures of artists over time (grand epochs, not merely decades). Australian artists certainly made an excellent and significant contribution to events in a very busy week in a frantic century in Shanghai. Australia is not exactly in the model (although container ships ply the Huangpu to and from Australian ports), but it is certainly part of the overall plan.

Stuart Koop is writer and curator based in Melbourne.