Art of Change: New Directions From China is less a retrospective of Chinese art post-Deng Xiaoping than it is a bold staging of interventions that inserts nine artists—and the conceptual approach they represent—into discourse surrounding the politics of socio-cultural innovation as it relates to visual culture. Artists Chen Zhen, Yingmei Duan, Gu Dexin, Liang Shaoji, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Wang Jianwei, Xu Zhen and MadeIn Company co-inhabit Southbank’s Hayward Gallery through live elements and ephemera that employ Eastern philosophies as a point of departure for discussing both historic and emergent traditions. What is compelling here is not only how change is rendered—the show’s visual coherence is inspired, evidenced most compellingly in living works by Duan, Shaoji and Zhen—but also where. Each artist creates a unique sensory environment in which to experience his or her interpretation of transformation on levels that surpass the purely visual. In these microcosms, creation is understood as an ongoing process that perpetually effects and is affected by a diversity of change, and meaning is enhanced through—yet not reliant on—cultural artifacts and art objects.
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is first confronted by a sculptural assemblage of abandoned fitness machines, whose phantom-like motion is controllable by remote control. In a nearby corner, concrete dregs from an interactive sculpture reside in unassuming piles on the floor. At this point, all the wall text contextualizing the dense theme of the exhibition seems a bit overstated in relation to the utilitarian essence of this first encounter. The gallery then leads up a level to the work of Yingmei Duan, where a woman “sleeps” on a shelf located just above eye level. She is completely motionless, aside from her eyelids that shutter with every creaky step of the visitor toward her. In an adjoining room, a large white box consumes the center of the floor—with the occasional odd object thrown up almost imperceptibly over its lid—yet looses attention to a surreally small door in the corner that leads to a Narnia-like haven. Inside, a woman sits on a log enshrouded by brambles and a sonic woodlands landscape, as she hands out written directives for how she wishes observers to engage with the world they help to create.
By now, the visitor has become increasingly aware of his or her own body in relation to both the physical and conceptual spaces these works consume. En route to the next gallery, a woman in pajamas follows directly behind the visitor at a short, finite distance that is felt and heard rather than readily observed. Her sensed departure before the stairs makes the descent upon Xu Zhen’s In Just a Blink of an Eye all the more surreal. In the center of the room, a figure appears to be caught mid-fall, in a precarious posture that suggests some sort of sculptural ingenuity. It is only upon nearing the figure that signs of human life abound—blinking eyes, a visible heartbeat and a chest that rises and falls—however it take minutes, if not the full half-hour the piece is “performed” for, to consign the incomprehensible physics of the piece to the right side of the brain and appreciate the enchantment of the spectacle with the left. Borrowing from the density of energy held within this singular posture, the next gallery expands on this temporal aspect of change, where works by Liang Shaoji repurpose the cocooning activity of silkworms to discuss metamorphosis as it relates to the senses. Shaoji’s meditative works—whose construction and consumption involves a patience and attention deeply rooted in the foundations of Eastern philosophy—mentally prepare the visitor for the ascent into an altogether different facet of the exhibition upstairs.
Here, artworks leave the primarily interactive and settle into an art-viewing paradigm that is more comprehensible within a contemporary art cannon. Although these pieces do not respire in the poignant ways that those did on the first floor, their materials are no less animate, even if rendered through the more conventional mediums of sculpture and photography. A colony of large beetles, a life-sized rhinoceros, a pillar of human lard and a plinth holding a slab of decomposing beef occupy the remaining galleries and infuse them with a distinctive breed—and scent—of vitality. Add to this a series of videos and photographs that document other living systems out of sync with their instinctual contexts, and it becomes clear that the later half of the exhibition is no less concerned with producing rupture in the conformist ways we perceive and experience the quotidian. Investigating these spiritual and bodily connections through a lens that is more inquisitive than prescriptive, these multimedia works reflect on the evolving role cultural innovation plays in influencing certain socializations.
Where this site-responsive exhibition—and curator Stephanie Rosenthal—excels is in the balanced and evocative choreography of diverse energies, both present and imagined, evolving and fastened to tradition. Perhaps this is achieved through challenging the understood dynamics and limitations of 2-D, 3-D and 4-D works; Rosenthal has selected living art that is primarily still and inert art that resonates life force through the organic materials that comprise it. In any case, what is left after this centrifugal experience is the impression that the scope of the exhibition extends far beyond the soft architectures that contain it and into the psyche of those who engage it.
Published in ARTVOICES, December 2012 Issue
Exhibition on view at at Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, 7 September – 9 December 2012