Gao Mingyan, Misunderstanding No. 1, 2009. Book, 28 x 17 x 15 cm.

MoCA Shanghai’s third “Envisage” biennale departed from the mélange of the first two editions; this time the sole focus was on the works of young artists. Entitled “Reflection of Minds,” the exhibition assembled the creations of 27 young artists—hailing from cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou—mostly born since 1980. The pieces displayed at MoCA spanned across a range of media, including video, installation, photography, multimedia, painting, and sculpture. There was also a wide range when it came to the standard of work shown; the overall combination came across as a sort of ecological map, inviting the public to survey the artists as they stood in relation to one another. But perhaps under the conditions of a relatively strict system of censorship, the works shown were, on the whole, safe and uncontroversial. For instance, Tang Dixin actually wanted to show a video of himself jumping off a railway platform, lying on the tracks, and being hit by a train. Instead, he ended up showing oil painting. There were artists who had hoped to show new works, and who were required to substitute them with older works—past pieces with which they were not fully satisfied. Thus it is difficult, based on what was featured in the exhibition alone, to produce an authentic judgment or analysis of the current state of China’s young artists. This kind of consideration requires a composite look at all of their artistic practices from over the course of the past several years.

The artists—of a generation that has grown up in the era of global politics and the age of the Internet—do not need to use the narrative mechanism of political aesthetics in their work, nor have capital and the art market yet had a chance to influence their thinking. So, they have shunned the task of reflecting the outside world, in favor of a return to introspection and indeed to a consideration of the language of art itself. This characteristic to their work manifests itself in three central aspects of the MoCA biennale exhibition: 1) The medial investigation of shared group behavior: Wang Yuyang deconstructs a realist landscape painting by dispersing brushstrokes of its pigment throughout the exhibition hall, such that the work becomes an abstract landscape without margins; Wang Sishun, interested in the transformation of matter, interferes with behavior and breaks things down into their original component properties, re-assorting them into physically altered end products; Hu Xiangqian regards the body as a medium, and reconstructs its narrative logic through behavioral performance. 2) The exploration of media material: Zhou Ming forms his own unique narrative grammar out of the language of computer animation typically used in the commercial production of animation; Ye Linghan’s approach is localized and obscure, virtualizing the images of characters in old films, and pushing the experiences of time and distance to the extreme of where they can stretch; Gao Mingyan crafts paper sculptures according to the names of foreign books he has purchased, and taken with the messages of the books themselves, the moulds become three-dimensional poems. 3) Specifically directed, individualized statements: Lu Yang’s love of science and the occult fills her work with the bizarre tension of the combination of the two; Hu Xiaoxiao is interested in everyday objects that are able to embody social memory, and her inauthentically reproduced installation pieces thus join with personalized understanding; Zhao Yao’s works attend to the dullness both of the form and meaning of repetitive action, as he reveals the way in which a recording of redundant behavior turns into literary material.

As to where their creative output stands on its own, one difficult question remains: How, under the circumstances of what is already a relatively good environment for art as an institution in China, can these young artists distinguish their own style from that of the generation before them, whose work achieved such fame and success? And in terms of concept and form, how can they reach new heights, and produce more advanced work? This may be the area that needs the most work. Weng Zhijuan