View of “The Narrators,” 2010. Inheritance-Shenzhen.

Three pairs of Chinese men and women, their eyes blindfolded and looking like hostages kidnapped by terrorists, appear on three different screens speaking the same lines. It is a video installation by Swedish artist Per Hüttner, who plans to hire actors in different countries—China, Sweden and France—to recite the same text concerning a world on the edge of dramatic change that the actors may interpret based on their own understandings and feelings. The experience of watching the actors’ somewhat uncomprehending performances in China was quite in keeping with the air of uncertainty in the show’s theme. In her show, curator Claire Louise Staunton apparently wished to use “the narrators” (the artworks? the artists?) to convey to the visitor the results of her investigation into Shenzhen’s urban and artistic ecology, but the posture of said investigation was unclear and even she had to ask: how can one effectively narrate a city?

Inheritance-Shenzhen was located in Baishizhou, an urban village in a bustling section of Shenzhen with a large quantity of relatively cheap rental space, where one finds all manner of small shop fronts, restaurants and vendors. The space was itself a store originally, and Staunton turned it into an exhibition space with few modifications. On the day of the opening, an incident surrounding a work by Huang Xiaopeng provided a meaningful prologue to the exhibition. Having constructed a light box of the Chinese transliteration of the English phrase “What do you still believe in?” (hua du bi li), Huang had planned on hanging it over the space’s doorway but met with the meddling of the community’s superintendent, who argued that hanging a shop sign counted as a business use and that additional management fees would have to be charged. Following a long argument, the superintendent relented and permitted the light box to be hung in the entryway that night, after which it had to be moved inside the space. For the artistically indisposed residents of the district, Staunton’s temporary exhibition space was just like all the other storefronts.

Besides Xu Tan’s Concert Hall of Zheng Daoxing, all the other works in the show were to varying extents connected to the city of Shenzhen. Among them, the piece most illuminating the city was actually the work of the Shanghai-based American artist Mathieu Borysevicz. His Shenzhen Story showed a father playing the piano, while an accompanying booklet rehashed the history of a family from the Cultural Revolution through the Reform Era: buying a home, separations, reunions. The work looked like the result of social fieldwork, as well as a mirror on a central issue for many Chinese families: the struggles and compromises between the traditional Chinese value system and the pursuit of individual desires. There was no excessive narration, just poetic execution that finally ends with the scene of a father playing the piano. At the end of the song nobody leaves, and life goes on. Hong Kong artist Lock Chi Kit’s Untitled meticulously presented in photographs, writing and location notes the twenty-four hours in one day in the life of a homeless person, whom one suspects suffers from a mild mental disorder, in Baishizhou. Under Lock’s lens, the homeless person is both harmless and does not need to communicate with others; he is a ghost living in the midst of a prosperous city. While portrait work centering on marginal groups is by no means rare, such a subject still represents a powerful tool for rethinking social systems.

Between Inheritance’s first show “Permanent Migrants” and “The Narrators,” and as Staunton’s stay in Shenzhen has lengthened, her exhibitions have become more fragmentary. This last show looked neutral and objective, which we can also understand as meaning that she has run out of things to judge about the city. Perhaps Inheritance may prove to have been a fleeting blip in the history of the city and its art, but only by taking into account independent spaces, the city’s hidden artistic capillaries, can we more fully and truly come to read the contemporary history of this city.      Wu Jianru