Wang Guangyi, Cold War Aesthetics, 2007. Oil on canvas 360 x 140 x 8 cm.

This exhibition is brimming with tension. From it, one can easily detect the frailty of the Chinese contemporary art world, as well as its sense of internal anxiety. Perhaps that’s not at all the impression that the Chinese contemporary art world should give, but the exhibition is just overflowing with negative emotions, and one can’t help but feel pessimistic. Forget that the show has a very provocative theme. There has been much discussion in the media of the staggering RMB 18 million invested in this project, held in a venue situated close enough to the Bird’s Nest that one can get lost in the connotations. But all this just reaffirms a discussion that has been prolonged and repeated for nearly five years: the extraordinary interference of market and capital in Chinese contemporary art.

On this point alone, the grandiose scale of “Reshaping History” has indeed provoked a response: it successfully revived mass media interest in Chinese contemporary art. This, at a time when Chinese art was no longer setting sales record after sales record and most of the media had lost interest. Obviously, with the help of a little capital, even the weak and weary Chinese art market can still prove itself worthy of public concern.

Yet “Reshaping History” is not simply a cry for attention. The exhibition makes an attempt to practice what it preaches. From the exhibition’s earliest planning stages, the organizers stipulated their own commercial involvement in the sale of works shown as a precondition for artists’ participation. This stipulation was stated explicitly, thoroughly changing the industry’s standard definition of exhibition categories. Even the curator himself, Zhu Zhu, admitted in his essay that this exhibition had the attributes of a “shipping container”: over one thousand works by more than three hundred artists were foisted into the thirteen thousand square meter main exhibition hall and two three-thousand-square-meter side halls. There is talk going around the industry, and it’s pretty frank: “Reshaping History” is clearly nothing more than an art fair.

If “Reshaping History” were in fact only an art fair, the “tension” mentioned at the beginning of this article would have been a groundless feeling, a false alarm. Groundless, because we know the difference between a purely commercial endeavor and a serious academic exhibition, and we know the attitude with which we should approach either. Nevertheless, the curators of “Reshaping History” insist that their commercially minded behavior is practical, strategic; that their true ultimate objective is to secure a more appropriate space for self-expression for contemporary art. That said, it can be inferred that these last-ditch actions are a direct result of China’s lack of a proper art system. Language like this—a rhetoric of opening space and shoring up foundations—is extremely moving, and has been ever since contemporary art is said to have appeared in China. It also feeds into a dangerous logic whereby people start thinking that if the point of departure for any given action is correct, it doesn’t matter if the means taken are appropriate; unorthodox maneuvering, paradoxically, is even seen as admirable boldness, paying attention to the overall situation without getting mired in the details.

Zhan Wang, 86 Ancestral Divinity Figures, 2010. Installation, dimensions variable.

However, upon entering the main venue in the National Convention Center, it quickly becomes clear that in real life, goals and tactics are harder to extricate. Viewing the exhibition, it seemed that the curators had devoted all their efforts to projecting an appearance of power and influence, as opposed to demonstrating how and why the “CHINART” (in the organizers’ insistent coinage) of 2000-2009 was selected and collated. Like stewing up a giant pot of congee, they simply threw all thousand-plus works into a huge exhibition space. Visitors were unleashed into an exhibition without context and in which interetextual relationships among works were slow to emerge. Many viewers would grow exhausted and leave without knowing anything more about the last decade in Chinese contemporary art. The only plus-side to this is that the visitor was afforded the chance to evaluate individual artworks one by one based on their own taste. As an exhibition organized to commercial imperatives, at the very least it can claim to collate a variety of taste hierarchies.

Alas, the reason why “Reshaping History” made us feel “tension” is because we realized that the foundation on which Chinese contemporary art lies is so weak that not even we, as viewers, can expect it to support a distinctly large-scale exhibition. The reason for this is Chinese contemporary art’s reliance on capital alone, without any art-world infrastructure to protect it. The nature of capital is to seek interest, and interests have to satisfy capital’s demands before entering into negotiations with it. Indeed, after the so-called game has been played, what we see is an exhibition that is of no help to the art world. If this really is the case, then it is better to go to 798 or Caochangdi than to get lost in such a sprawling show. There, at least, the ecosystem of art is healthier, more diverse. Who knows—if you are lucky enough, you might even see some exhibitions that actually have something worth saying.

Li Qing, White Group Portrait, 2010. Oil on canvas 240 x 600 cm.

In fact, any exhibition—no matter what the scale—is confronted with the same questions: why should it be presented, how should it be presented, and who is the target audience. The curators of “Reshaping History,” with all their knowledge and experience, should have had no difficulty answering these questions. If “Reshaping History” was held for a particular time and place, its sheer scale just goes to show that Chinese contemporary art still plays a relatively active role in China’s cultural scene. Yet this exhibition should have lived up to its name. I refer not to the absence of certain important artists, but to the fact that although the curators were conscious of the problems raised by their chosen moniker and the difficulty of expressing them in words, they still chose it as the title for a visual exhibition distinctly lacking an intellectual background.

To say that “Reshaping History” was a way to gather material for the art history books of the future would only prove the curators’ lack of knowledge concerning their chosen subject, the last ten years of Chinese contemporary art. But beyond that, nobody lives in history; we exist only in the present, and everything we do serves to influence the future. Given this, who wouldn’t be suspicious of an exhibition so keen to consciously bill itself as rewriting the past?

For those who ask what the value of this exhibition is, we may only make our assessment according to the exhibition’s actual accomplishments: “Reshaping History” could be seen as a successful marketing campaign for Chinese contemporary art at a time when it sorely needed it, confirming once again its energy and vitality in the Chinese market. But if this is the best way to summarize an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art from 2000- 2009, shouldn’t we all feel a bit anxious? Sun Dongdong