revelation and resistance 'bourgeoisified proletariat'

'history in the making–shanghai 1979-2009'
Songjiang Creative Centre, Shanghai; 436 Ju Men Lu, Shanghai
11 - 14 September 2009; 10 September - 10 October 2009

In recent years Shanghai has become the focus for a major international festival of contemporary visual art. This festival, which takes places each year during September and October, encompasses a number of recurrent art-related events, including the Shanghai Biennale, ShContemporary (an annual contemporary art fair first staged in 2007) and the Shanghai E-Arts festival, as well as numerous one-off exhibitions, performances and discussions.

Among the best of the exhibitions at this year’s Shanghai festival were two independent survey shows of contemporary Chinese art: ‘Bourgeoisi­fied Proletariat’, an ambitious group show of the work of over thirty-six individual artists and seven art collectives currently working in the People’s Republic of China (PRC); and ‘History in the Mak­ing–Shanghai 1979-2009’, an equally ambitious historical overview of contemporary art practices in Shanghai over the past thirty years. Unlike other more commercially orientated exhibitions of con­temporary Chinese art at the Shanghai festival, both of these shows gave much needed insight into aspects of contemporary Chinese artistic practice that have often been marginalised or downplayed both within the PRC and on an international stage.

For the most part, Bourgeoisified Proletariat conformed closely to established expectations with regard to the staging of independent survey shows of contemporary art within the PRC by bringing together a large and technically diverse body of artworks without the explicit imposition of an overarching curatorial theme. Less predictable, however, was the inclusion within the exhibition of non-Chinese as well as Chinese artists currently working within the PRC, including the Hangzhou based Alexander Brandt, who was also one of the exhibition’s nine-strong curatorial team (most of whom were Chinese nationals). The exhibition therefore departed from a prevailing tendency both within the PRC and elsewhere to define contempo­rary Chinese art in strongly nationalistic terms. At the same time, many of the works on show sought to address, in a suitably micrological manner, everyday Chinese social, economic and political concerns almost certainly unfamiliar to non-resi­dent viewers. An example of this is Shi Yong and Seth Joseph Augustine’s video-based installation entitled The Border Within, which presented criti­cally incisive images of a non-Chinese leading the life of a Chinese migrant worker. While the exhi­bition may have upheld the notion of a culturally diverse, globalised ‘Chinese’ contemporary art, it also maintained a highly resistant sense of local­ity (a message reinforced by the decision to hold the exhibition at the Songjiang Creative Centre, a newly built and hard to get to creative industries hub on the fringes of Shanghai, accessible only to those with sufficient local knowledge or exhibition going chutzpah).

These broader considerations aside, the quality of the work on display at Bourgeoisified Proletariat was, like other independent survey shows of con­temporary art across the world, highly variable both in terms of intellectual vision and practical realisa­tion. Stand out works for their ability to engender a strong aesthetic charge included an installation by Geng Jianyi, in which the viewer was drawn into a black box whose disorientating darkness was broken only by an electronic digital readout count­ing two second intervals between the switching on and off of a dim light briefly illuminating the way out—a work that can be interpreted as a satire both on the inconstancy of the contemporary art spec­tator and our general susceptibility to discursive manipulation. Another stand out work was a video installation by Yang Fudong extending the artist’s current preoccupation with the harsh aestheticism of Chinese life.

'History in the Making–Shanghai 1979-2009' also brought together a large and technically diverse body of artworks. By contrast with Bour­geoisified Proletariat, however, that body of work was organised by the show’s curator Biljana Ciric according to an explicitly stated curatorial theme: the historical development of contemporary art in Shanghai since the adoption of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening up and reform in 1978. History in the Making is undoubtedly a landmark exhibi­tion that, as Ciric has claimed, stands as the most complete overview to date of contemporary art practices in Shanghai over the past thirty years. Indeed, the exhibition included a number of art­works whose place in the historical development of contemporary Chinese art has up to now been sig­nificantly underestimated, not least, Tang Guang­ming’s exquisite arte povera style Flag Series of the late 1980s and early 1990s—motley assemblages of cloth fragments signifying hybrid identities; and Ni Weihua’s Continuously Spreading Event of 1992 and 1993—an early and telling example of a specifi­cally Chinese brand of situationist intervention. In this, History in the Making did much to correct the misleading emphasis on Beijing which continues to dog the accepted view of contemporary Chinese art.

Despite its undeniable standing as a landmark event in the curatorial historicisation of contem­porary Chinese art, History in the Making was in some measure a far less satisfactory experience than Bourgeoisified Proletariat. To some extent this lack of satisfaction stemmed from deadening connotations of academic rationality which almost always accompany historical overviews of contemporary art; connotations very much at odds with the ineluctable non-rationality of the subject at hand. Of greater importance here, though, was an inescapable feeling that the exhibition’s reach had far exceeded its grasp. Not only did History in the Making showcase a number of artworks of highly questionable significance, some of which had clearly been used as pale substitutes for far better works that were presumably unavailable, it also had a number of glaring omissions, including the work of the internationally renowned painter Zhou Tiehai (who had declined to take part) and works by the duo Song Tao and B6. Moreover, the exhibition was accompanied by little in the way of support­ing material to indicate the relationship between the work and the wider context(s) within which it was produced and received. As a result, and not­withstanding powerful restrictions on freedom of expression which continue to limit the showing and making of art in the PRC, one was left with an abid­ing sense that History in the Making had embraced theatrical disclosure and narrative formality very much at the expense of a much needed, and rather more searching, curatorial inquiry into the social and political significance of contemporary art in Shanghai.