The British Council’s last major contemporary-art undertaking in China—the 2006 exhibition “Aftershock” at the Capital Museum in Beijing—did not make its way to Shanghai. The current show “The Future Demands Your Participation,” while long overdue, has finally granted this city’s audience its unfulfilled wish. But if “Aftershock” was an exposition ten years after the fact of the significance of the vaunted YBA generation for Chinese contemporary art, then what kind of official overseas image of British art does this show present? At first glance, the show’s Chinese name, which translates roughly as “Future Ho!” sends out a perplexingly optimistic signal of fun for the whole family.
Echoing this signal is “Future’s” opening section, so safe and flat as to seem a little dangerous. The entrance contains the Damien Hirst painting Apotryptophane (1994) hanging alone on a wall and seemingly sending another message: Sorry, none of those provoking installations here! Not far from the Hirst is the show’s title piece, Mark Titchner’s The Future Demands Your Participation (2006). A transparency in a lightbox, it manages to communicate a kind of summons to this age of collisions and collusions between art, entertainment and the market. But the viewer faces a violent change of channel when he turns from this clarion work to be drowned in the grand racket of Jeremy Deller and Allan Kane’s Folk Archive (2005).
Deller and Kane spent seven years collecting vernacular art from all social strata to create an exhibition rivaling one of Beijing’s temple fairs, full of banners, glass cabinets, photographs, videos and sculptures, systematically pulling together the voices of people equal in their outsider status. No matter how successful Folk Archive may be as a sociological project, its disorderly mass swallows up a huge chunk of space on the museum’s first floor and thus reveals a lack of curatorial control. While some visitors may applaud the many pieces of British prison art, others are more likely to lose their grip on where they stand in relation to the show proper, lost among the countless amateur works that together make up this single piece.
Apart from a room screening the video works of artists like Steve McQueen and Douglas Gordon, one must to a great extent rely on the two small galleries on the second floor to come to a deeper understanding of this contemporary British art exhibition. Gathered here are most of the landmark figures of contemporary British art, from Hirst, the Chapman Brothers, Gillian Wearing and Mona Hatoum to Grayson Perry, Richard Wright, Wolfgang Tillmans and Gilbert and George. Crammed together in this pair of galleries, the effect is a bit like being on a two-car trolley at rush hour. At the center of the crowd is Anish Kapoor’s sculpture The Chant of Blue (1983). This high-density display stands in unseemly contrast to the more generous dispatch of space on the first floor. But despite its offbeat rhythm and difficulty to read, the second floor still has more merits than flaws, offering a veritable Wikipedia entry on the YBA generation.
Of course, the show’s cursory treatment of individual artists shows that the focus of this wikipedia entry is on a formal roll call; this is not a redundant reproduction of “Aftershock.” Three years ago, that exhibition paralleled a pressing local desire to find in the YBA generation’s successes a bankable paradigm, or at least a philosophical justification, for the global rise of the YCA (“Young Chinese Artist”) generation. In Shanghai on the cusp of the World Expo, this exhibition no longer concerns itself with the apprehension or animosity of local art professionals toward their counterparts in the West. Appearing at a moment when the order of the Chinese art world is reshuffling, and against the broader background of China’s rise, this show is more than an exercise in name-dropping. Instead, it looks to provide a context for the large-scale importation of Western art to China that many see as imminent. What form this importation will take remains unclear. On this level, our future urgently demands more participation. Xiao Tu