The exhibition “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back—Us and Institution/ Us as Institution” has a title that could be a slogan, and its programming schedule is no less intense. In just six short weeks, the Times Museum also organized artist workshops, seminars, round table discussions, a symposium, and publications. In her selection of artworks and agenda, curator Biljana Ciric strived for a panoramic presentation of institutional critique, as well as a complete inventory of the artist-institution relationship in all its dimensions.

In this context, Ciric gathers together artists from Southeast Asia, China, and other associated locales, and examines their practices through the framework of institutional critique. In addition, she scatters throughout the exhibition artworks of Serbian artist Mladen Stilinović from different periods of his career. The curatorial statement emphasizes “a format that combines solo and group exhibitions, creating an ‘exhibition within an exhibition’ that provides a new interpretation of the exhibition model,” but the result is less than ideal. Although the “group show” occupied a large percentage of the museum’s exhibition space, and includes artists from the aforementioned regions and the Middle East, the spatial layout of the artworks reveals an understanding and viewpoint that adheres to mainstream, Western institutional critique. The exhibition can thus be divided into three sections: direct action by artists targeting art institutions in the 1960s and 70s; exploration by artists of their own subjectivity and institutionalization in the 80s and 90s; and from the 1990s onward, the continuously broadening and evolving phenomenon that came about when the concept of institution/system—as influenced by the internationalization of art and relational aesthetics—entered into a broader social context.

With Stilinović’s works—including Artist at Work (1978)—as a prelude, the viewer can wander around the galleries and see history through art: There are works by the Indonesian artist Black December Movement in the 1970s, Xiamen Dada from the 1980s, and documents of Huang Yong Ping’s practice. At this point Ciric consciously inserts documents from the Art Workers’ Coalition that formed in New York in 1969 and the exhibition catalogue and slides from “Magicien de la Terre” from 1989, as a means of tracing the evolution of institutional critique as an idea. Besides the historical connections, this arrangement highlights Ciric’s intentional annotation of her research and makes a statement about the reasonableness of her curatorial model. In other words, the exhibition places at its center a Western framework and theory that rapidly spread to Asia—the edge of the landscape of institutional critique and where Ciric deems as “not having been elevated to a theoretical level.”

By subsuming diverse practices of Asian artists within the institutional critique perspective, Ciric oversimplifies artworks that span different time periods, geographies, and contexts: Bomb Ponds by Vandy Rattana (Cambodia) is about war and colonial history; Ho Tzu Nyen and Tang Dawu’s works refer to the relationship between art and local politics; the work of both Khaled Hourani (Pakistan) and Wong Hoy Cheong (Malaysia) touches on systemic issues of nation and ethnicity; and the relationship between ideology and aesthetics as implied in the life journey of “master realist sculptor” Cao Chongen (China). Eventually, the “us” and “institution” in the exhibition’s title devolve into catchall super-nouns. The multitudinous life experiences of the individual and collective, when represented in such a general structure, are very likely obscured.

Toward the exhibition’s conclusion, Ciric attempts to build a theoretical path for discussing the definition and aspects of the institution in Chinese art practices, by connecting the reality of internationalization in art with the traditional Chinese philosophy of “active withdrawal.” Unfortunately, the metaphor of globalization and cultural interaction, which is made by juxtaposing the 1860 portrait of Prince Gong (taken by an Englishman) with Chinese artist Wang Xingwei’s faux commercial paintings (2009-2013), is more like a vulgar fable. The Chinese-style wisdom conveyed in works by Yu Youhan and Duan Jianyu seems more authentic; they reveal a perception of life as flowing water, and call attention to the occasional powerlessness and inadequacy of theory.