11th Shanghai Biennale

Power Station of Art, Shanghai, China

Read the Chinese transaltion of this article here: 

Halfway through my solitary first visit to the 11th Shanghai Biennale, I was reminded of Marguerite Duras’s script for Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). In it, she refers to the ‘particular halo’ that colours every gesture in Hiroshima, giving it a ‘supplementary meaning’ beyond the literal. Curated by Raqs Media Collective and titled ‘Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments and Stories’, the biennale is animated by a similarly precise choreography of displacement, repetition and reconceptualization to that which reigns in Duras’s film. The show, which takes place at the cavernous Power Station of Art – Shanghai’s only publicly funded contemporary art museum – carefully avoids the ‘literal’: meaning here is not singular but multiple, fragmented and thick.

wang-haichuan_900.jpg

Wang Haichuan, Seven Days, 2013, installation view. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai 

Wang Haichuan, Seven Days, 2013, installation view. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai 

The three members of Raqs – Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta – have worked with a curatorial collegiate composed of Sabih Ahmed, Chen Yun, Liu Tian and Tess Maunder, as well as with a group of young independent curators – Srajana Kaikini Ivan Isaev, Mouna Mekouar, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Didem Yazıcı – for the ‘Infra-curatorial’ projects. These are intimate ‘shows within the show’ that, while moving at their own individual paces, are also expertly folded into the overarching narratives and strategies of the wider biennale. Likewise, throughout the exhibition, individual works carry traces of other conversations, events and objects. Viewers are asked to contemplate these echoes in the various structuring sections of the biennale – the ‘Orbits’, ‘Terminals’ and ‘Infra-curatorial Platform’ – but following your own sensory logic can also be rewarding. During my second visit, I stayed with Lee Mingwei’s suspenseful performance Our Labyrinth (2015–ongoing) before charging into the nearby, bewildering Disorientation Station (2016) by Ivana Franke, a cluster of circular rooms filled with white LED lights, revolving floors and mirrors aimed at rupturing sensorial context.

marjolijn-dijkman-2.jpg

Marjolijn Dijkman, Lunar Station, 2015, steel pendulum and sand, table, video, found objects. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai 

Marjolijn Dijkman, Lunar Station, 2015, steel pendulum and sand, table, video, found objects. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai 

Contesting purely theoretical formulas, the biennale includes many works that express opposition to war, persecution and oppression in ways poignantly devoid of didacticism. These include Taus Makhacheva’s bold and probing video Endeavour (2010), the mixed-media paintings on paper ‘Known Unknown; Gaza Series’ (2014) by Farzana Ahmed Urmi, and the haunting ‘The King Series’ (1975–77) by Rabin Mondal. In Untitled Images (2014), Khaled Barakeh meticulously, almost surgically, excises from photographic images the bodies of war victims carried in the arms of survivors, the ghostly silhouette a reminder of the brutal dialectic between private loss and historical erasure. In the film installation Wandering Lake (2009–ongoing), Patty Chang explores the intersections between bodies and unstable geographies as a form of political commentary. Mother/Land (2015), a video installation by Sofya Staune about migration and exile, Dewaal (2012–14), a sound wall of protest shouts by Desire Machine Collective, and Tao Hui’s Talk About Body (2013), a quietly terrifying critique of China’s regimes of heteronormativity and Han-majority control of other groups, all seethe with fury and indignation. 

patty-chang-900.jpg

Patty Chang, The Wandering Lake, 2009–ongoing, cardboard installation with photographs and projections. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai  

Patty Chang, The Wandering Lake, 2009–ongoing, cardboard installation with photographs and projections. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai  

Raqs have taken advantage of the harsh industrial interior and exterior spaces of the museum to stage salient juxtapositions through placement and the thoughtful use of light and sound. Parked outside the vast cement facade of the building, the site-specific installation The Sidewinder (2016) by Lantian Xie – an empty black Volkswagen Santana, which plays jazz while a copy of Life lies open on the passenger seat – is ominous and cinematic. By contrast, Maruts – Storm Deities (2016), Vishal K. Dar’s intervention in the brick chimney of the former power station, which consists of a spiraling ascension guided by oscillating beams of light set to varying metronomic meters, feels entirely cosmogonist and transformative.

mousenmsg-2.jpg

MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being — Planet Trilogy, 2016, videos, sound, objects and bees. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Weaving moral and ethical concerns together with playfulness and flânerie, this biennale assumes a theatrical function. It also opens up to ordinary lives lived in Shanghai: the off-site project ‘51 Personae’, devised in collaboration with local curator Chen Yun, part ethnography and part community project, may be seen as an attempt at ‘urban cultivation’. Three participants per week, over the biennale’s 17-week duration, will tell stories of their experiences of Shanghai to live audiences who must seek them out in unusual sites. These intimate encounters are magnified in the echo chamber of China’s omnivorous social media platform, WeChat. Republic Of Dance (2016) is equally intriguing in its attempt to combine the cosmopolitan conventions of dance theatre with city life. Created by dancers and choreographers Xiao Ke and Zhao Zihan as part of the performance strand, the work alludes to the contemporary Chinese culture of dancing in large groups in public spaces – often derided yet utterly resilient. It serves to remind us of the intricate choreographies of daily routine and the intrinsic beauty of bodily movement.

Crucially, Raqs and the other curators have determinedly resisted ethnocentric perspectives, foremost by avoiding what Rey Chow describes as ‘a kind of postmodern self-writing’ and the ‘primitivism’ that appeals to specific Orientalist discourses about Asia. Yet, they have also remained sceptical of the liberating possibilities that diasporic mobility, globalization and transnationalism supposedly present.

Main image: MouSen+MSG, The Great Chain of Being — Planet Trilogy, 2016, videos, sound, objects and bees. Courtesy: Power Station of Art, Shanghai

Francesca Tarocco is a writer, critic and associate professor at Ca' Foscari University of Venice, Italy, and NYU Shanghai, China.

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018