Tony Cragg, Thin Skin (Ver. 1), 1997, Bronze sculpture, 50 x 95 x 45 cm

The subtitle of the inaugural CAFAM Biennale, “Super-Organism,” is “Research and Experiment from a Specific View.” This “non-biennial,” established within a biennial framework, brings an abstract theme to a specific space through the arrangement of works and coordination of related activities; it also summarily seeks theoretical propulsion through texts including a catalog, a forum transcript, and an exhibition reader. The result is a dynamic structure. The experimental aspect of the theme lies in the most ostensible interpretation of “Super-Organism”: the concept draws an analogy between the ordered structure of organisms and the spirit, conduct and organizational structure of human society, searching within the visible for the motivating force of the invisible. However, this theme is more or less an abstract summary at the curatorial level, and it does not fully encompass the ideas that lie behind the various exhibited works. The focus of the artists and the curator are both integrated and differentiated: as the artists work on the basis of their individual experiences, the curator generally organizes the ideas within a metaphysical context.

Beginning with the organism concept, “Super-Organism” ambitiously explores the boundaries of art. The exhibition uses art as a medium for processing various collisions between the material world and human spirituality, the latter represented by the creation of art. A wide variety of contemporary art media are represented by the works in the exhibition, which includes both domestic and foreign artists, and also achieves an all-inclusive diversity of conceptual expression. The thematic starting points of these works can cursorily be divided into three categories: the biology of the body, symbols of material society, and abstract expression.

The reproductions of organic characteristics largely adopted relatively direct approaches; most of the works of this nature were in the “Super-Body” section. Analytical works, such as Kevin Clarke’s series of “portraits” of the DNA of renowned artists such as Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, and Lu Yang’s Paralysis Agitans Project, made up a large portion of this section. Wang Yuyang’s Electricity, in which he stored transformed brainwaves in a battery, represents a different approach, pursuing the breakdown of convention through innovative work that requires the participation of science professionals.

As for the works addressing material society, which mostly fell into the “Super-City” and “Super-Machine” sections, major themes included premeditated reappearance, interference with reality, and the modification of the materials of reality. Within these sections, machine, city, body and their corresponding signifiers were distilled into plastic elements. For the most part, the “super” aspect of these works could be attributed to their own creative expression of the various visible (concrete) and invisible (abstract) landscapes of different domains. “Life Politics” explores both the microscopic and macroscopic significance of the body by merging a socio-historical concepts with specific experiences of life and survival, with the intention of responding to the attention people devote to their bodies in present times.

In the “Super-Machine” section, William Kentridge’s video installation What Will Come (Has Already Come) recalls Italy’s mustard gas attack on Abyssinia in the 1930s. The installation employs a film projected on a revolving cylindrical mirror to enhance the sensory experience of the simple pen-and-ink animations. The “Bio-Politics” section features the “Everyone’s East Lake” project, in which Wuhan artists effected a series of onsite interventions on the basis of local cultural geography. However, this project could only be represented through internet resources and map projections, leaving viewers with the sense of trying to scratch a mosquito bite through a leather boot.

Feng Feng, Lanscape Inside Body-Amber, 2001-2003, Installation, human blood vessel samples, acrylic, metal tubes, 195 x 140 x 450 cm

Other shortcomings due to the exhibition format or the relationship between the artworks and the space included the group installation under the “Super-Machine” heading, “Museum of Unknown,” which lacked clear elaboration. At first glance, many viewers might not have ascertained exactly what sort of profound exploration was expressed by this peculiar arrangement of everyday utensils. The installation stood in contrast with a recent solo exhibition of this project at Beijing’s Space Station gallery, where the tight space and lack of distractions provided a more favorable setting.

In fact, it was some of the more abstract works that proved most stimulating to viewers. In Blanchette, the Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens used the immaterial media of light and dust to create a “sculpture” in the dark, going beyond traditional artistic methods by applying an unadulterated formal system to experimental expression. Tony Cragg’s sculptures, Thin Skin and Early Forms, produced a similar effect, providing a sensory experience that seemed to exceed materiality.

There was no lack of big names in this exhibition, and the inclusion of their work in the same context with that of younger artists produced various conceptual counterpoints and collisions. But this huge display is in fact but a grand assemblage, achieving a synthesis and expansion of forms within the contemporary art system without quite becoming a living thing itself. Hardly any of the works in the exhibition are new, and in its entirety it seems a little like a gathering of familiar ingredients presented as an inventive banquet—provided nobody calls it salad and hors d’oeuvres. Could the organizers of such a massive presentation be anything better than hasty? Could it be that some works were included because it was too painful—or too inconvenient—to leave them out?

As for the curatorial presentation of different media, including video, painting, installation, and mixed new media—”Super-Organism” provides a case worthy of consideration. The exhibition includes certain works which have been overexposed in recent years, such as Liu Xiaodong’s paintings, Yang Fudong’s black-andwhite photography, the imaginative large-scale installations of Huang Yong Ping and Qiu Zhijie, and even some works by younger artists, such as Qiu Jiongjiong’s ubiquitous documentary, Gu Nainai. Presentation within the theme of this exhibition endows these works with new interpretations. The artists all evince a responsibility to achieve expression that is not merely surrealistic, but superordinary. The “super” aspect of their creativity, on the micro level, enjoys an intricate relationship to the “super” aspect of the curatorial project on the macro level. The curatorial structure implicates the various forms of expression described above into different systems of symbols. The interaction between part and whole creates the “organism” explored by the overall project while retaining an ineffable ambiguity.

From the space to its role in art ecology, the museum itself clearly forms an important link in the construction of this organic subject. Moreover, the intrinsic educational function of the academy has unique implications for the scope of the project. “Super-Organism Archive Study” is a collection of important excerpts and images compiled from historical archives by students and scholars from CAFA and the China Academy of Art. Ever since coming to CAFAM from the Guangdong Museum of Art, Wang Huangsheng has done his utmost to integrate the scholarly pursuits of the academy with the creativity of the museum.

Of CAFAM’s recent exhibitions, “Super-Organism” best manifests this ambition: to gradually elevate museums—especially museums within the academy system—from simple display houses to important sites for recreation within the art system. However, in this particular exhibition, the thematic ambition of “Super-Organism” is partially dispersed by the immensity of its coordination. The conduct of the academy sometimes leads to fault lines between the theoretical theme and the most basic visual elements: the choice and presentation of the artworks. For the angle of research and experimentation to become genuinely “unique,” more precise and robust bridges across those fault lines must first be constructed. Yan Xiaoxiao (Translated by Daniel Nieh)