As the social compassion and peripheral perspective contained in the punning title “Rem(a)inders” and the poetic allusion to the processes of artistic production in “Glass Factory” suggest, these two exhibitions approached the question of public memory after postmodernism in markedly different but complementary ways. Veering into anthropological, sociological and political investigation, they challenge long-held perceptions of art, art objects, the art scene and art’s multiple relations with the social.
Galleria Continua’s exhibition invited artists of different ages, nationalities and cultural backgrounds to make works using trash, defective goods, remnants and rejects. The titular piece, by Arte Povera pioneer Michelangelo Pistoletto, riffs on a symbol of widespread religious significance in the East—the Maitreya Buddha, seated on a base built of discarded electrical appliances and adorned with old clothing. If the symbol of the Buddha is culturally specific, the dialectical relations among the objects surrounding it transcend ethnic difference. Nari Ward showed three works, first among them Crying Form, Rising Symbol, in which shoelaces form a star, that great political symbol, linking a general sense of progress and development with a feeling of despair. Ahh collaged the tongues of athletic shoes into what looked like a giant mouth, perhaps suggesting the inevitable and repressed desire beneath a lighthearted exterior. China Idle incorporated old shoes and tires into a static condition in a reflection on the stagnation of the public body. Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Plastic Tree B collected colorful plastic bags, objects of proletarian daily life, from all over the world, turning them into an empty embellishment. Subodh Gupta’s paintings of leftovers from Chinese meals are framed in classical sixteenth-century frames, suggesting the quick changes wrought by development and a pressure to push onward even when the present has not been fully digested. Chinese viewers will gain from these quick gazes by outsiders a sense of just where their society fits in relation to others.
In a manner different from the foreign artists shown at Continua, the Chinese artists of “Glass Factory” turn their attention inward, offering mainly reflections on the systems governing Chinese contemporary art. As the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art’s second anniversary exhibition, the show takes its title from a poem by Ouyang Jianghe. Its subtitle, “Chinese Art under the New Financial Order” establishes the show’s temporal and regional scope. The exhibition takes the year 2009 as its starting point, offering a survey of the systems of artistic production and circulation at work during this period. Interestingly enough, Iberia opened at the height of the Chinese contemporary art market in 2008, and has witnessed the market’s fall firsthand. The financial crisis, to some extent, served as Iberia’s initiation.
Because they were tasked with showing the “phenomenon” and “situation” of the contemporary Chinese art system in a consumer society, the works in “Glass Factory” had to rely on explanatory text, background information and in some cases exchange with the viewer, lest their meaning be lost entirely. Yet even with ample explanation, viewers may still underestimate the ire provoked by the fake Documenta invitation letters Yan Lei and Hong Hao circulated to Chinese artists in 1997. Likewise, Wang Luyan’s The Other’s Prophesy takes up the influence of external opinion and the larger environment on collecting, asking whether the act of collecting might be circumscribed by the viewer’s willingness or refusal to enter the game. Wang projects images of his personal collection into the air four or five meters from the nearest wall, barely visible at all. Only when a viewer enters the room can the collected objects become clearly visible, projected onto the viewer’s body and subject to her movements and presence. In a related vein, Ni Haifeng’s Reciprocal Fetishism is a collection of everyday objects culled from collectors, showing that object fetishism need not be a one-way street.
In contrast to some of the more ambiguous works on view, Chen Shaoxiong’s Bank of Contemporary Chinese Art puts a call for investment in an art bank on display. If the power of capital has become pervasive and credible, why should this power not extend to the realm of art, the piece asks. To be sure, the allure of capital is a time-tested key to communication. Liu Ding’s work Gravestone for Rumor Mongers is perhaps the most personal of the works on display, using black metal boards in different shapes to represent the emotional pain he suffered when he and his family suddenly became the victims of a vicious personal attack on a Chinese art website in 2008, exacerbated by the freedom which the anonymity of the Internet empowers.
“Glass Factory” offered a rare brand of self-critique, but the artistic jabs it takes at the art system have themselves been absorbed into the very object of their critique. More unfortunately, this critique too often seems to work only as posture, its object a system controlled by others or a sloppy notion of identity. And such critique, originating and circulating within a closed system, is easily subject to misunderstanding and censure.
This is not a problem with the Chinese artists’ works in “Rem(a)inders,” particularly the several that engage with broader Chinese society from the perspective of the experiential subject. Ai Weiwei, for example, cut 500 “Forever” bicycles—a design icon now out of production—into chunks of no more than five centimeters. Interestingly, he arranged them on the ground in the shape of the shadow cast by a B2 “Stealth” bomber. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s video I Do Not Sleep Tonight shows the view from the artists’ jeep after they outfitted it with a police siren, driving around Beijing at night and trailing cars as a way of challenging and doubting the boundaries and realities of power. Zhuang Hui and Dan’er use resin and acrylic to create sculptures of “carpenter’s remnants,” their intentional re-sculpting of these contingent objects hinting at the extreme poverty of social life. Guo Fang