Zhuang Hui and Dan’er, Mandarin Duck, 2008, installation, 230 x 30 cm

Ironically, for a show titled “Guanxi” after the Chinese word for “connection” or “relation,” each artist enjoys the benefit of an independent space, minimizing the possibility of mutual interference among the works. To give just one example, it appears that curator Jiang Jiehong had some problems showing the work of artist Xiang Jing: here her work lacks its previous coherence and richness, and compared with previous exhibitions, its execution appears a bit hesitant. At one end of the exhibition space stands a telescope and a kaleidoscope, yet the high positioning of the telescope makes it impossible to view any part of the show through it. In the middle of the space lies a sofa and nearby, a stack of pillows, both encircled by hanging thread; elsewhere we find two sets of figurative sculptures. The artists in this exhibition respond to the theme of guanxi set out by the curator with a focus on “observation,” though Xiang’s work reflects a wavering between the role of observer and the object of observation. And although the curator plays a direct role in the artists’ creative experiments, he proves unable to shake Xiang’s conviction that “[Her] work becomes able to exist independently, self-serving, in and of itself,” instead merely managing to “successfully” intrude on her own creative process.

“Guanxi” is an exhibition with a predetermined theme; curator Jiang Jiehong, in the accompanying publication Letters to the Artists: No. 1, writes: “The original idea for the conceptual framework of this exhibition was a kind of response to the word guanxi as it is used in the Chinese language. In Chinese culture, guanxi can denote a particular kind of power, a networking mechanism which provides an individual the strength of influence…” The logical continuation of the curator’s treatise on guanxi requires the artists to supply some kind of visual response to it. Though in fact the relationship between this social-linguistic discussion of this well-worn term and the actual works of the exhibition is vague, especially considering that any selection of pieces (read: any curated show) can feasibly be explained according to the guanxi between the works on view. Considering the relative breadth and ambiguity of the exhibition theme, the extent to which it actually influences the works created may perhaps be most worthy of discussion. However, the collection of letters between the artists and curator made for stimulating reading. Consisting of conceptual games, struggles, compromises, each artist has their own say.

Participating artist Yang Xinguang writes: “While I did manage to articulate a kind of guanxi, I still cannot find a way to navigate the theme you propose; it often appears as elusive and awesome as a magician’s spell.” Over the course of numerous written exchanges, the curator’s proposal was thoroughly discussed and often negated. Though in the end the work produced still leaves one rather disappointed. Yang’s resulting work Mountain Forest leaves us disappointed; it possesses none of the infectiousness of previous works inspired by its titular theme, instead appearing simplistic and over-conceptualized. Some artists of course manage to emerge unscathed by the curatorial theme, and Qiu Zhijie is a noteworthy example. The almost didactic tone he assumes in his correspondence with the curator, discussing social relations, how to understand the world, how to decipher the word guanxi itself; Qiu’s style develops along these lines, despite showing the same work that was exhibited at the Shanghai Biennale, Notes on Colorful Lanterns at the Shangyuan Festival.

Due to the elevation of the theme, the work here perhaps simply serves to reiterate; or perhaps, over the course of repeated discussions, it simply loses its original energy and vitality. The exhibition may also perhaps have the flexibility, to be small or large, to evolve freely, to incorporate any Chinese artist and still function coherently. Or maybe there are too many artists, too many exhibitions, so many that one more or less forges no new guanxi. Wu Jianru (Translated by Dominik Salter Dvorak)