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Ocula Report

9Th Shanghai Art Biennale: Reactivation

Xue Tan Shanghai 22 February 2013

The 9th Shanghai Art Biennale is undoubtedly the most ambitious yet. It’s unprecedented in the size of venue, number of participating artists, side projects and educational workshops. Along with all this is the fact that it is the inaugural exhibition at the Shanghai Power Station of Art - the largest government-run contemporary art museum ever built in China. This biennale bears an implicit mission of generating national attention and re-vitalising the forgotten expo-park.

The effort of being grand is boldly emanated by the first work that comes in to sight - the 18-meter-tall installation, Thousand Hands Kuanyin by Huang Yongping stands like a giant in the atrium, nearly reaching the ceiling, with countless steel arms grasping various objects considered relevant to Chinese culture. This overwhelmingly large work dominates the center hall and succeeds in stunning every visitor, an indulging starter to the biennale’s visual banquet.


On the side staircase is a work by young British artist Simon Fujiwara, a set of Terracota Warrior statues with female features, that encapsulate the artists sociocultural and anthropologic research on Rebekkah, a supporter of London riots 2011, who was taken on a controversial touring program in China instead of facing prosecution. The scattered plaster pieces positioned on the various stair levels, explore aspects of manipulation and damage. Wang Yuyang’s light installation Falling Like a Feather occupied the other atrium. Hundreds of florescent light tubes arranged by an algorithmic calculation, and organically forming a geometrical dimension, stimulate a free-fall position, glitzily frozen in time on the top of the brand new museum café. Ouyang Chun’s Infinity Column clusters eclectic objects in a pole that bursts from the ground, which penetrates two concrete floors and ends up on the roof.

“You don’t see this type of spectacular work in Western biennales anymore. People are very careful about not making the exhibition set-up too spectacular. I also think that while the economic and political situations in Europe and the United States are very vague and fragile, in China, the booming economy makes it very confident, so the Biennale is much more of a mirror of the economic situation in this country.” — Jens Hoffmann

However, being spectacular and awe inspiring has always been a quasi - Chinese trait in any government funded event. Co-curator Jens Hoffmann remarked: “You don’t see this type of spectacular work in Western biennales anymore. People are very careful about not making the exhibition set-up too spectacular. I also think that while the economic and political situations in Europe and the United States are very vague and fragile, in China, the booming economy makes it very confident, so the Biennale is much more of a mirror of the economic situation in this country.”

The theme Reactivation is meant for the new museum to regenerate the energy and motivation of the revitalization of the former Nanshi power plant. The thematic narration goes through four sectors, one might speculate this linear logic as a thread of a harmonic Utopian ideology - from retro-specting the transformation of the social ideology in Resource, to the highlights of the reinvention and conservation of historical and cultural relics of Revisit, then the showcase of artistic interpretation of contemporary life and art production in Reform, to conclude, Republic presents projects that start from the idea of communal collaboration. Together this rather celebrating prospect reveals no critical discourse nor the rise of doubt towards the established order.

Writer and curator Boris Groys is most notable for his study of East European Art, and Jens Hoffmann has had a long engagement with American and European artists and an idiosyncratic approach in exhibition making. Hong Kong based dealer and curator Johnson Chang was a pioneer in the discovery of Chinese, Middle East and Indian Art. The gravity between these curators and chief curator Qiu Zhijie was revealed in a selection of artworks that drew on a wide geographic map. On the other hand it was rather ubiquitous to realize the picks of each curator.

Among the selection are works of biennale regulars including Ryan Gander, Tino Sehgal, Danh Vo, Nishino Kozo, and Sophie Calle. They are shown alongside a constellation of early works by Joseph Beuys, Jeffery Shaw, Roy Ascott, Joseph Kosuth, Rudolf Steiner, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, who brought high anticipation to the Shanghai audience. This package warps the previous criticism of being a provincial biennale with a young and international suit. The biennale also includes a number of young Chinese artists, Lu Yang presents her latest animation works which delineate anxious imaginary in the body of God and religion; Lu Zhengyuan experiments with cymatics and body expression in a mixed media installation; Ho Sin-Tung sets up her personal cinema with a skillful set of drawings; Yang Xinguang presents his meticulous combination of raw materials, and later claimed on Weibo that the presentation couldn’t achieve the ideal status due to the havoc in the installing process -- this situation was evident on the press preview day when the museum had only a few works installed. In response to the complaints, Qiu Zhijie explained on his blog that the situation was the result of a shortage of funds and people - although the budget was four times that of the previous biennale, it was still far from adequate and therefore the biennale had to rely on sponsorships in lieu which explains the awkward transformer robotic Citroen DS in the exhibition hall. Nonetheless, almost all the works were installed on the opening day.

On the other side of the city, the City Pavilions brought great vibrancy to the largest art event in Shanghai. 30 shows were housed in several derelict historic buildings around the Bund, the temporary and neglected spaces gave organisers more flexibility and freedom. Detroit’s Hinterlands and Pittsburgh’s Lovasik Estate Sale were well conceived, offering an accessible interface and participatory experience to the public.
In the last month of the Shanghai Biennale, rethinking the hardship and achievement of the exhibition together with the recent fierce phenomena of museum development, the focus should be on fostering the system and art professionals in order to keep the pace strong and ideas feasible. - [O]

Xue TAN is an art writer and producer based in Hong Kong, she has worked as editor and curator for the Creators Project,  and contributed to publications such as Artforum, Randian, Artinfo, Leap, and Architectural Digest, among others.

http://www.shanghaibiennale.org The Shanghai Biennale runs until 31 March 2013

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