Meditations in an Emergency: Solace and Solidarity at UCCA
Exhibition view: Meditations in an Emergency, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (21 May–30 August 2020). Courtesy UCCA Center for Contemporary Art.
In this moment of global anxiety, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing has reopened after the longest closure in its history with Meditations in an Emergency (21 May–30 August 2020), a group show exploring solace and solidarity in the work of 26 artists, including Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Shana Moulton, and Robert Zhao Renhui.
But this it not a show that relies on art to provide comfort in anxious times; rather, it focuses on points of emergency and urgent contemplation. Curated by Guo Xi, Luan Shixuan, Ara Qiu, Rocky Lin, Duffy Du, and Neil Zhang, the exhibition's title comes from a poetry anthology by one-time MoMA curator Frank O'Hara. The curatorial text cites one line from the book in particular: 'In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love.'
Launching the show are the penetrating, soul-stirring sounds of Qiu Anxiong's ink animation New Classic of Mountains and Seas III (2013–2017). Replete with urban and ancient buildings caught in clouds and fog, this is the last in a trilogy of animations that Qiu began in 2006, presenting a study of a person's experience living between real and virtual worlds. Across these realms, male voices utter the first four sentences of Tao Yuanming's 'Miscellaneous Poem': 'Life has no roots / Like dust floating on a footpath / Scattered by the wind without a destination / The physical body is not eternal'.
New Classic of Mountains and Seas III opens the first of five exhibition chapters, 'The Fragile Everyday', with works like Musquiqui Chihying's three-channel video installation The Alp/The Bedroom (2014/2020) exploring the ambiguities of daily life. The film follows a young protagonist, 'A.K.', desperately trying to cure his insomnia: a narrative that partly unfolds through conversations between Chihying and workers in the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, located between Lake Constance and the Appenzell Alps, including farmers, horse trainers, and market clerks. Throughout, we see A.K. building an IKEA-style bed in different places to sleep—in meadows, on a tree, under a streetlamp, inside a horse stable, for example—before finding peace behind the heavy anti-nuclear door of a bomb shelter.
Among the works in 'Vital Signs', the show's second chapter, is an installation comprising three videos by Angela Su—Cosmic Call (2019), The Cephalopod (2019), and Angela Su's True Calling (2019)—first shown in the exhibition Contagious Cities: Far Away, Too Close, curated by Ying Kwok and coordinated by the Wellcome Trust at Tai Kwun in Hong Kong (26 January–21 April 2019). Based on a residency at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences and commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, Su's videos weave fact and fiction to propose an alternative understanding of epidemics, drawing on Chinese medicine, cosmology, and philosophy to push back against dominant narratives of viral outbreaks that often follow the formulaic plot of a detective story: the disease emerges, medical investigators trace its origin, and science triumphs.
An area partially painted sky blue appears behind Su's works: part of Amiko Li's The Purpose of Disease (2017–2020), an installation consisting of text, photographs, arches, and standing doors arranged across an enclave, where two chairs and a table stage a doctor's waiting room. Departing from Li's week-long hospitalisation due to an unexplained rash, the installation looks into the regeneration of limbs through various remedies and healing processes, including acupuncture, cupping, psychiatry, antibiotics, herbal supplements, and genetic testing.
Tong Yi Xin's Poems in the Mount Lu Zoo (2015–2020) encapsulates the complexity of the next chapter, 'Beyond Animality'. This ten-channel high-definition video tells the history of a zoo in Lushan in the northern part of Jiangxi province, central China, where Tong was born. Built in 1953 and abandoned in the 1990s, the zoo has become the home of migrant workers who inhabit the empty enclosures—a change in function that Tong has documented every year since 2015. Videos and interviews with former zoo workers and complex architects reveal alterations to the zoo's architecture as it becomes overtaken by nature and transforms in accordance to its inhabitants needs; transformations that plot a 'three-act drama' between humans, animals, and the built environment.
A fence structure measuring over two metres in height embodies a physical separation, or gateway, between the exhibition's fourth and fifth chapters: Joyce Ho's recent work, Balancing Act II (2019). The act of walking through invokes the crossing of borders and forms of 'passing': a connection with the sentiments of Christopher K. Ho's CX88 (2018), placed just beyond.
Located in the section titled 'Out of Focus', CX88 is staged as an airplane interior. The installation, named after Cathay Pacific's daily flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver, signifies Ho's journey back to Hong Kong after leaving the city for Los Angeles as a child in the late 1970s. A meditation on the anxiety caused by living 'out of place' in the United States while seeking out a 'place' in Hong Kong, chairs line a carpeted aisle facing two screens that play stills from the TV series 'Switched at Birth'.
'Out of Focus' modulates the landscape of a fragmented information society, whether in Yang Fudong's Beyond GOD and Evil – Enemies of Truth 10 (2019), in which aphorisms from Nietzsche's book Beyond Good and Evil (1886) are printed on black; Lu Lei's The Square (2015), a sculpture of 100 stacked galvanised barrel drums and tweeters; and Payne Zhu's Make Bad Cookies (2016–2020), consisting of two laptops placed next to wall-to-floor text inviting audiences to browse a programme that visualises the networked behaviour of a search engine.
In the case of Hu Rui's new work, High Fidelity Magic Spell (2019–2020), the Chinese idiom 'one five one ten' (一 五 一十), which means to narrate in detail or give a thorough report on something, is considered a mantra that summons the truth. A scaffold of Ceramic tiles and sculptures shaped into the idiom's characters mark the installation, which revolves around an animated video that describes a dystopic world divided by those who manage information and those who have no access to it. In this new economic structure, the knowledge of exchange labour is effectively withheld, eventually leading to war and a purification of the information space.
The clear curatorial logic that runs through this exhibition is not only a testament to UCCA's curators, but to the organisation's impressive efficiency: Meditations in an Emergency was curated and executed in the space of two months. This impressive fact illustrates one of the many states of emergency represented in this exhibition: a connection to the realities—and politics—unfolding right now in China and beyond, that are not touched on directly.
To make up for such shortcomings, perhaps visitors who attend could wear the t-shirts that Zhang Peili is selling on WeChat right now, which read 'understand' and 'do not understand'—a reference to the late Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who signed a Public Security Bureau letter disavowing his warnings of Covid-19 with his name and the concession, 'understood'.—[O]