Meta-question : Back to Basics —The Museum Per Se

Andrée Weschler,The Need of an Alteration, 2011, Video, performance,2 min. 3 sec.

In September 2011, the fourth Guangzhou Triennial opened as scheduled—amidst considerable doubt, followed by responses increasingly bleak in their disappointment. First in 2002 with Wu Hung’s conception for the first triennial—“Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000)”—next in 2005 with Hou Hanru’s “Beyond: An Extraordinary Space of Experimentation for Modernization”—and again with Wang Huangsheng and Gao Shiming’s “Farewell To Post-Colonialism”—the Guangzhou triennial has consistently emphasized three keywords: “global,” “local,” and “experimental.” If the first triennial bore traces of a pairing of Chinese contemporary reality with Western theoretical discourse, then the second built upon this foundation—circumspectly raising questions about the Chinese reality from an angle characteristic of Western discourse. Out of a previously nameless state, the Pearl River Delta was distilled into an experimental laboratory of contemporary art—and a new agenda for discussion of the local region was successfully launched. It can be said that with the “Delta Laboratory (D-Lab),” Hou Hanru and his colleagues introduced and integrated for the very first time issues related to experimental art in the Pearl River Delta Region with its urbanism projects and the artists’ works. The undertaking in many ways entirely renewed the form of contemporary art at that time. For the third triennial, the topic turned to globalization—reintroducing the exhibition to that familiarly precarious state in which a heavy use of theory risks a flattening effect. Indeed, using theoretical discourse to confront local art can often end up in over-manipulation and the encroachment of dogma. Moreover, three years ago in China, alternative art spaces were very hard to come by—leading to a question worth our earnest reflection: in such an environment, was it truly the opportune moment for the discussion of topics like “post-colonialism” and “cultural pluralism”? Whatever the answer, from the first triennial’s ordering of present reality to the second triennial’s localizing practices—and then to the third’s attempt to weed out the new by mining the old in its confrontation of theoretical subjects—each triennial has left its own lasting mark on Guangdong’s contemporary art history—and perhaps on that of all of China as well.

In reality, “Meta-question”—the first half of the theme envisioned by Luo Yiping and others for the fourth triennial—is a legitimate philosophical response to the triennial preceding it. Whether or not the time was ripe for an introduction of “post-colonialism” in the first place—indeed assuming that it was and is—the implication is that the narrative of a previously black-and-white system of values has been broken, and that the reality we confront now exists in a framework much more dynamic and accommodating of nuance. This would be a stage on which multiple subjects act and on which a plurality of values can exist—values exclusive to one system alone, no longer taken as rote in the estimation of reality. A dynamic and detailed process of evaluation would mindfully pose questions arising out of the macro-perspective: those “meta-questions” which give rise to new and different sets of values.

That being said, the second half of the theme, “Back to Basics—The Museum Per Se,” puts a new series of unnecessary constraints on the exhibition organizers; clearly, the object of the so-called “meta-question” must ultimately be a more concrete, moment-bound form of life or art. Discussing the curatorial philosophy of the triennial, Luo Yiping writes, “The renovation and expansion of the Guangdong Museum of Art has been listed as an official item on the ‘Guangdong Province Outline of the Plan to Build Culture and Strengthen the Province (2011-2020)’; the project is expected to be completed in 2013. Running the course of the entire project, the triennial will be divided sequentially into three parts: the ‘Inauguration Exhibition,’ the ‘Project Exhibitions,’ and the ‘Themed Exhibition.’” One might boldly suggest that if the organizers’ considerations of the theme were not so closely tied to the museum’s renovation and expansion projects, the academic outline of the triennial’s “meta-question” would emerge in clearer view.

Michael Lee Hong-Hwee, After Humans (detail), 2011, Installation, Dimensions variable

Typical of any triennale or biennial is the common complaint about the sheer amount of works exhibited—about the inability to see everything in one day, even if one were just to skim the surface. But with this triennial’s “Inauguration Exhibition,” everything there is to see can be seen in only half a day. This not only rests in the fact that there are very few works, but also in the simplicity of their ideas. Out of everything exhibited, The Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (Koen Vanmechelen) is slightly more complex. Over a thousand numbered chicken eggs are neatly ordered on a shelf; an explanatory panel lays out for participants the laborious and complex process that is the pedigree reproduction of chickens. The museum has meticulously built a kind of “tropical rainforest” simulation; after putting on surgical masks and disinfecting their shoes, audience members enter into a spotless, airconditioned, arid-soil “cosmopolitan chicken” breeding farm. Then, a bit of education: “This natural environment has been restored such that two diametrically opposed species of chickens can mate. Imagining this process of reproduction over the course of generations, we begin to reflect upon the concepts of ‘postcolonialism’ and of ‘hybridism.’” The two species of chickens on display are in fact differentiated by “nationality”; they are classified as “purebred opposites.” Many other works possess similar trains of thought. For the installation piece High School Class, columns of cylinders in school uniform represent models of high school students; a series of collapsed models of landmark architecture comprises After Humans; and the video The Need to Change, shows the image of a female artist repeatedly swallowing and vomiting calligraphic ink: a reproduction of the torment of a nightmare.

Clearly, the status of the work of art as a manipulable entity has already engendered an instant, conscious mode of artistic production; one might go as far as to say it has already become a pre-condition for the formation of art. Perhaps all that is left for an audience facing these works—beyond the endless cognitive judgments—is a big pile of information. In relation to viewers’ real lives, the works all seem to boil down to a bizarre cacophony. These simplistic, formalistic works are not the only shortcoming of the exhibition.Equally baffling is that the documentary images comprising Zhang Xinmin’s Country to City have the first floor gallery all to themselves—meanwhile possessing no discernible relation to the exhibition theme. Then there is “Art Domain Migration: ASEAN and China”—which includes a selection of contemporary artists currently active in Southeast Asia. Though this ought to be a good opportunity for a Chinese audience to better understand the current landscape of Southeast Asian art, most of the works chosen have already been exhibited several times, and the site unfortunately lacks any information or guidance otherwise directed at educating the audience regarding the development and background of the art and artists.

It is my belief that in attempting to respond to the intangible boundaries of this theme (whether “Meta-question” or “Back to the Museum Per Se”) through the artworks, the artists are met with ambivalent boundaries. The difficulty of formulating such a response rests predominantly in the structure of the exhibition forum (carried out continuously over the course of three years in Guangzhou, New York, and Beijing). And so we have yet again touched on a sore spot: the use of theoretical discourse in exploring practical issues is without a doubt a legitimate method, but what counts as legitimate in the academic realm is not necessarily within reason in the space of an art exhibition. In the opinion of some philosophers, ever since Duchamp’s white urinal (Fountain, 1917) entered art history’s textbooks, contemporary art has lived against the background of the destruction of art history’s grand narrative, becoming merely a concept grown out of the manipulations of philosophical analysis. Manipulation itself is in turn a kind of paradigm of thought—a product of a structural force systematic in its nature. What is unique about this triennial is that it musters no resistance in the face of these structural forces. Thus, modern manipulation can only lead to grievous drawbacks: content atrophying into form, form regressing into attitude, and the complicit affair between the forces of power and capital all exposed in their entirety. Xie Jie (Translated by Katy Pinke)