A week or so ago, i attended the press view of Art of Change: New Directions from Chinaat the Hayward gallery in London. The exhibition that brings together the work of some of the most innovative artists from the 1980s to today. Each of them is allocated one room to demonstrate the state of installation and performance art in China.
According to Curator Stephanie Rosenthal, China doesn't have a long tradition of performance art. The art form began to flourish in the late 1970s when the country opened up towards more avant-garde forms of culture but the State banned it after the protests on Tiananmen Square. And because neither performance nor installation art are supported by the governmental art system, artists often had to work under the radar.
The works exhibited by the 9 participating artists are extremely strong. As much as i admire Ai Weiwei and his opinion of the show, i do believe that artists can create meaningful, valid works even if they are not openly criticizing their country's politics. Besides, some of the works exhibited did comment on political issues such as censorship and international relationships. Ai Weiwei is probably right though when he writes that "The Chinese art world does not exist." At least probably not in a uniformed, self-conscious fashion.
I don't know how typically Chinese the works in the exhibition are but i do know that they give a dimension to contemporary art from China that had been ignored by the blockbuster exhibitions that opened in Europe -from the Saatchi gallery in London to the Cobra Museum in Amsterdam- a few years ago. For a moment, it looked as if European audiences couldn't get enough of contemporary Chinese paintings and sculpture (custom-)produced to delight rich "Western" collectors in search of the exotic and of a good story of censorship. The works exhibited at the Hayward are certainly less market-savvy, they are less about the final product and more about creating a platform for thinking.
Change, and the acceptance that everything is subject to change, are deeply rooted in Eastern philosophy. The exhibition focuses on works that deal with transformation, instability and discontinuity, looking at how these themes are conveyed through action or materials.
My main criticism is with the archive that charts the key moments in performance and installation art from China. The archive is distributed in the gallery on posters and digital screens. Why this valuable resource is confined to the gallery space and isn't available online for people to read and comment is a mystery to me.
The most moving work for me was Yingmei Duan's Happy Yingmei. Visitors have to bend down to enter a small room turned into a forest. The artist was waiting at the back of the room. She was sitting and singing what sounded like a lullaby. She then raised up and walked towards me, dead leaves rustling beneath her bare feet. She was looking at me and i couldn't move nor look away from her gaze. As she advanced towards me, i kept wondering "what will she do? how should i react?" You need to go and experience the work for yourself if you want an answer.
Wang Jianwei's Surplus Value invites visitors to grab a racket and play ping-pong on a wonky table. Endless frustrating fun. I do suspect however that if you're an extremely talented player you might be able not to make a fool of yourself.
Xu Zhen's video The Starving of Sudan recreated Kevin Carter's 1993 Pulitzer Prize winning image of a vulture waiting by a starving child in the desert. In Xu Zhen's version however, the child was from an immigrant Guinean family living in Guangzhou (she was supervised by her mother who was paid by the artist), and the vulture was stuffed. Visitors and members of the press who saw the performance in 2008 Beijing's Long March Space were placed in the position of a news photographer in a war zone. They recoiled in horror but still took pictures and discussed the work on their blogs. Who's the vulture?
Talking to art.it, the artist explained that the work is about making the audience use their own knowledge to produce a judgment. So at Long March the audience were in the same role as Kevin Carter. They went to the show, took out their cameras, shot pictures and I'm sure were very excited. Then afterwards they could pass judgment on me - "Oh, this artist is no good." And that parallels the fact that when Kevin Carter died, he was under a lot of pressure - condemned by the whole world; but the whole world does exactly the same thing that it condemns.
The work was created soon after China entered into controversial trade and agreements with African countries, including Sudan.
Xu Zhen also placed performers wearing striped pajamas in a neat line near the entrance of the exhibition. The actors pick up a visitor and follow them wherever they go.
Chen Zhen covered a roomful of household objects with a layer of red mud. The clay dries as the exhibition progresses. According to the artist, the clay has the ability to purify and disinfect the materialist culture of objects, giving them a "new destiny".
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's Civilisation Pillar is a monument to capitalism, vanity and excess. The structure is made of the fat collected from plastic surgery clinics.
More ping-pong and more images from the exhibition:
Another mag has an interview with Stephanie Rosenthal, Chief Curator, Hayward Gallery.
Lisa Ma is interested in the fringes of society. From the ladies who are mad about cats to the communities campaigning to stop the extension of Heathrow Airport. Lisa is a designer and her role is to create platforms of engagement with these groups which are otherwise ignored by society.
One of her latest projects drove her to a joystick factory located in one of the suburbs of Shenzhen. She spent several weeks with the factory workers, sleeping in dorms, sharing their meals in the canteen, making friends.
Because most of these young factory workers come from a farming background and because joysticks might very well become obsolete soon, she proposed to the factory owners that they'd allow the joystick makers to work part-time in a nearby farm. She called the experiment Farmification - using farming to keep the factory community together when work dwindles.
Almost everything about the project intrigued me. So i asked the designer to give us more details about Farmification:
Hi LIsa! In your video you say that there are more than 230 million Chinese migrant workers? Why do you think we know so little about them? Is it because we prefer not to know about who they are and how they live? Or is it because it is difficult for an outsider to gain access to these factories?
We tend to be conscious of Chinese factory workers as a working mass. For example ABC's "Monday morning, at the Foxconn's recruiting centre over 3000 people have been lined up, desperate to work for Apple's biggest supplier", we hear about the impressive scale rather than relate to the workers as humans. When journalists write about factory salaries they are describing these workers in terms of economic values. Focusing on sensationalist extremes makes the workers difficult for us to relate to on a human scale and distances them, whereas I look into the workers' daily lives and highlight their mundane events to make them more emotionally accessible for the viewers.
The manufacturing of our products is really a very secretive process. We are starting to grow a consciousness about material and ecological costs in the items that we use but there's a huge part of how they are made that is still in the shade. The recent Foxconn stories have brought more attention to this but there are other examples of how the story of manufacturing affects consumption:
-In 2011, a luxury Italian furniture company called Davinci caused outrage in Chinese customers when it was exposed that their 'imported' products was in fact made in China. "By spending a day in the bonded zone, the furniture had changed from being classed as domestically produced" to being labelled as Italian-made." Robert Olsen, Forbes, 1/05/2012.
-The value of a workforce demonstrates itself (sadly) in any touristic craft store, where there's a supposed craftsman making spoons out of horn or glass-beaded bracelets for sale. The narrative process of the products becomes the main selling point.
-The village of Dafen specialises in making fake paintings. The process of faking a famous painting has actually become an tourist attraction. The point is that vendors can position their value in the craft process, even if it's faking a famous painting. (Ironically, due to Dafen's success, now other villages reproduce their own 'fake Dafen fakes'.)
One possibility is that products might have a "Responsible Life-Work Balance" standard, similar to the "Free From Animal Testing" labels that we've become accustomed to as consumers. However, this is a very paternalist view of our connection with the manufacturing process. The goal of my research isn't just to dictate what "good practice" should be. The stories I've been revealing hope to show the different threads of problems rather than a single answer that fits all. Through "Farmification", I'm giving a design suggestion that would invite more potential alternatives by making the issue more approachable.
How did you manage to get access to a joystick factory in China? Was it a long and painful process or did it require little more than an email?
The best explanation is that "contacts of contacts" offered to me to stay in either a handbag factory or a joystick factory. I chose the joystick, largely because it was interesting as a technology on its way out.
It was a no frills package. I was literally sleeping in the dorms and eating with the workers day after day. At one point I was about to be covered in heat rashes and the factory owner, in exchange for some of the photographs, let me have his spare apartment. There were no glass in the windows and the air conditioning leaked over the bed. For a while I was sleeping with a bowl in my bed. On my third week I managed to 'bribe' a production manager, over a meal of duck congee, to link his broadband from the second floor window across to my window on the fifth floor, for 50rmb (£5). That was probably the best investment I've made.
I thought the place was pretty secure, with guard dogs everywhere, but once someone tried to force open my lock in the middle of the night. They took so long that I managed to boil a kettle of water to defend myself. It was like the Three Little Pigs. Luckily for both of us, the door held.
Sometimes I was really questioning if I was doing the right thing but it was worth it. I stayed for about 6 weeks there and after half a year, returned to them with my proposal.
What makes a joystick factory a fringe? Because surely 230 million people cannot be regarded as fringe?
Factory workers are fringe in terms of our awareness and industrial concern, not in terms of scale. There is in fact a huge amount of people in the peripherals of our vision. Joystick factory workers, specifically, are at the fringe of the innovation cycle. They are at the brink of being left out from demand for the products that they manufacture. They are an emerging group of people designed out by technology.
If I understood correctly, you proposed to the factory owners that workers would work part time at the farm. But what benefit (financial and non financial) is there for the owners of the factory to see their employees desert the building to work in the field?
In Europe, there is a similar debate of "Farmification" for people to sustain themselves with direct food security. The allotments in the United Kingdom sustained the population against social unrest in the economic depression of in 1930s. Currently there are innovative farming movements with people such as Incredible Edible working to revive farming during the recession and making an impact on British policy-makers.
What is going on at the farm nowadays? Are people still working there?
The factory is sadly downsizing and the farm is a strawberry field right now. I'm not sure if anyone will appreciate the irony of Strawberry Fields Forever.
Did you find the answer to that question you're asking in the video "who's making all the food now"?
China's importing huge amounts of food internationally. For example, the chicken feet, which are Chinese delicatessens are being imported out of American chicken factories as waste products. This is a nice story of recycling but depending so heavily on importation is not sustainable for the largest population in the world. China's importing grain in record numbers. There is a 500% increase since last year and it's having a huge impact on the price of food for the global community.
And finally can you tell us a few words about the other fringes you've been exploring since the Farmification project or the fringes that you are planning to explore in the coming months?
Building up from a previous project, Heathrow Heritage, about a local airport community and it's activists, I explored similar possibilities in the airport of Shenzhen. A large proportion of Chinese airspace is militarized and passengers complain of the long delays, often abusing airport staff without giving the problem any further thought. I'm taking stranded passengers out of Shenzhen airport and into the snack streets of the slums surrounding the airport, where the staff live.
I'm also starting a collaboration with mindfulness coaches Headspace to break the stereotypes of the meditation community.
Finally, I'm finishing off workshops I hosted on The Future of Sex Education in a Beijing Love Hotel. This project investigates what a sexually active generation, that's never had its own sex education, demand of the future generation. As one of the participants in the workshop puts it: "girls learn from their boyfriends and the boys learn from porn". The collaborators and I had to get through every loophole possible, for example, the anti-nudity technology was so crude that Garfield the cartoon cat was banned because of its tanned body. How do these people evolve their own fantasies when their first points of reference are from Western pornography downloaded from illegal cafes?
I never paid much attention to the machinima genre so far. The FILE Machinima section of the FILE festival in Sao Paulo proved me how wrong i was. Many of the movies selected by Curator Fernanda Albuquerque de Almeida are indeed little gems. I'll just mention Wizard Of OS: The fish incident by Tom Jantol, a short based on Nikola Tesla's notes on his experiment with a mysterious antivirus device he named "The Wizard of OS" and Clockwork, by Ian Friar aka Iceaxe. Set in the totalitarian Republic of Britain, Clockwork tells the story of a police officer on a mission to track down an "undesirable".
The movie that received most attention from both the public and the members of the File Prix Lux however is War of Internet Addiction, a machinima advocacy production that voices the concerns of the mainland Chinese World of Warcraft community. Although the machinima was created with WoW players in mind, the video strikes a chord with the broader public by pointing the finger to the lack of Internet freedom in the country and conveying a general feeling of helplessness.
The main frustration of mainland Chinese WoW players is that the access to the game has been limited and interrupted for months because of a conflict between two government regulatory bodies. The video also denounces battles and issues that took place in China over the previous 15 months or so: electroshock therapy for purported internet addiction (the Health Ministry has mercifully asked for the treatment to stop); the government's attempts to enforce installations on all new pc sold in mainland China of the Green Dam Youth Escort filter; the competition between the county's primary game servers over licensing renewal rights, etc.
Players are also tired of being stigmatized by mainstream media as 'addicts' because of their love of game or simply because they tend to spend hours in front of their computer. The character of the villain of the film, Yang Yongxin, is actually based on a psychiatrist who used shock-therapy to treat so-called "Internet Addiction."
Within days of its release the 64-minute video was banned from a few video sites in China, but that didn't prevent the movie from becoming even more popular on-line than Avatar nor from winning the Best Video award in the Tudou Video Film awards for online films and animations in an awards ceremony that some see as China's version of Sundance. The machinima also received an honorable mention at FILE Prix Lux. Not bad for a zero budget film made in 3 months with the help of 100 volunteers who cooperated through the Internet.
Warning! Many of the jokes, memes and references in War of Internet Addicition are hard to grasp if you're not familiar with Chinese net culture. Fortunately, a public document listing the background information has been posted posted online.
Interview with Corndog, director, script writer and coordinator of the movie, on WSJ.
See also: Homo Ludens Ludens - Gold Farmers.
Previous entries about FILE festival: Heart Chamber Orchestra, Scrapbook from the ongoing FILE festival and Feeding the Tardigotchi. The FILE exhibition is open until August 29, 2010. Address: Fiesp - Ruth Cardoso Cultural Center - Av. Paulista, 1313, São Paulo - Metro Trianon-Masp.
A quickie before i embark on lengthier businesses:
Huang Yong Ping whose work i've seen in New York and Venice this year set up two impressive exhibitions in Paris this Fall. Unfortunately, I missed the Arche exhibition which looked spectacular and closed, alas!, on December 1st. However, I did manage to see the Cavern and the White Elephant shedding its skin on the otherwise immaculate floor of the Kamel Mennour Gallery a few days ago.
BOZAR - Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels was the first cultural centre of its kind to be constructed in Europe. Its exterior is gloomy but not quite as much as its neighbours the Central Station, the awful shopping gallery nearby and the Royal Palace. The inside though is luminous, amazingly intricate, and art deco. It was designed by Victor Horta. The programme is far from being the most adventurous and exciting in the world but there are little gems of exhibitions once in a while.
One of the artworks i discovered at STILL LIFE is Moving Rainbow.
In 1998 Xiong Wenyun started a 3 year project that would see her covering trucks with plastic tarpaulins painted in the seven colours of the rainbow. The vehicles followed the route that connects Bejing with the Tibetan plateau. On the way, she illuminated the doorways of roadside cabins with the same red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple colours. The same colours one can find on the prayer flags drivers and travelers have left alongside the highways they traveled on. According to the artist, Tibetans see rainbows as god's ladders that bridge the earthly sphere with the celestial.
The Moving Rainbows performances and installations were documented with photography and videos.
Wenyun's concern is more environmental than political. Jonathan Goodman commented her work in art critical: Her grand action is undertaken with a true spirit of humility, something that China has lacked in its assumption that Tibet must be modernized at all costs. What is needed, more than anything else, is Xiong's sense that the interaction between people and landscape is something sacred, and not an excuse for raw profit or environmental exploitation.
So much has been said and written about contemporary China. A fifth of humanity lives within its boundaries, the country is undergoing extraordinarily fast mutations, its cities dwarf whatever idea Europeans might have of a metropolis and its economy is increasingly linked to ours. Yet, i doubt there are many people out there who could honestly pretend they understand or 'know' the 'Middle Kingdom.' In fact, the splendor and history of imperial China is probably clearer in most minds than the country as it is nowadays.
The exhibition In the Chinese city. Perspectives on the transmutations of an Empire currently on view at the CCCB in Barcelona gives an overview of the recent processes of construction and implacable deconstruction that the country is undergoing and puts them into a historical and cultural context.
The show is split into a dozens sections linked between themselves by a Chinese word or concept that leads visitors through the urban design, architecture, landscape and infrastructure of various Chinese cities.
Archeological artefacts, maps, spectacular photographies guide visitors to the most exotic places: along the coast of Guangdong province where more than 100 000 workers recycle computers and other electronics waste products shipped from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Or to Chongqing, a mountain city counting some 32 million inhabitants where bang bang workers carry huge amount of goods on their shoulders and to the Dafen Oil Painting Village, a village that churns out around the world about five million paintings every year -- most of them copies of famous masterpieces.
The most moving part of the show comes in the form of short movies shot by five young movie directors who present their personal visions of five cities. Jia Zhangke -whose previous movie Still Life won the Golden Lion at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival- portrayed Suzhou, the 'eastern Venice' in a short titled Heshang de aiqing (Cry Me a River).
Suzhou is remarkably well 'preserved' compared to other Chinese cities (most famously Beijing) who have felt the pulverizing wrath of modernization. According to Ruan Yongsan, who used to work at the Office of Building in Suzhou, there is no law that protects monuments in China, only labels given to 'famous, historical and cultural cities'. China is finally starting to awaken to the need to save its patrimony and some fear that authorities might want to erect some fake authentic buildings where monuments have been destroyed.
Interestingly, the exhibition is coupled with a series of debates and presentations that deal with delicate and controversial topics such as Tibet or political prisoners.
In the Chinese City is a co-production between the CCCB and la Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine de París. On view at the CCCB in Barcelona through February 22, 2009.
If you can't make it to Barcelona, i'd recommend the catalog of the exhibition, In the Chinese City published by Actar. There's an english/french version, a catalan and a spanish one. I bought a copy at CCCB and forgot it in a hotel room. I wish i would not do this kind of silly acts so regularly.
Image on the homepage: "Espera", film for the exhibition about the city of Chongqing Director: Peng Tao. © Xstream Productions Ltd./CCCB/Cité de l'architecture et du Patrimoine.