In Tao Hui’s video Talk about Body (2013), a young woman sits on the edge of a bed, wearing subtle make-up and a headscarf, which she occasionally tugs at. Mostly, her hands remain in her lap, as she tilts her head downward, suggesting modesty or even shame. Per its title – which lent its name to the group show at Aike-Dellarco in Shanghai – the woman in Talk about Body describes (in Chinese, with subtitles) her physical aspects, from fat content to toe-type. At times, she refers to herself with a strange, social Darwinist bent, as if she were a historical artefact: ‘particularly small-boned, which makes me agile and drought-enduring’. The inscrutability of some of these statements (‘My brain is round-shaped’), as well their alleged subject being conspicuously covered, adds an enigmatic element. (The ‘woman’, I found out later, is actually played by Tao, who is male.) The video’s weirdness is enhanced by the incongruity of the narration and its setting – a light but not especially cosy bedroom, crowded with ten or so people: some sitting, some standing, one crouching on the floor holding the bars of the bed like a prison window. The reason for this audience is unclear, but the lasting impression is of a strange, social ritual – somewhere between a chat show and a witch trial.
Tao conveys a tension between the need to belong and the need to be oneself. Such concerns find a complement in the exhibition of works by Zhu Jia at both of ShanghART’s spaces in the M50 art district. This tight display of both new and old works shows Zhu, a major figure in the development of Chinese video art, as a master of the still photographic image. The four photographs that comprise My Space (1994) show the artist posing with studied, exaggerated casualness on home furniture in an anonymous display room. His efforts to merge seamlessly with domestic ideals demonstrate precisely how much the artist doesn’t, and won’t, fit in. Temperature (2004), a series of images of adult men clutching dolls, is a similar display of vulnerability. Absent Expression (2015) comprises six photographs running the length of a wall, depicting anonymous male and female figures grouped in threes: two stand stiffly, eyes averted, while the third sings into a microphone. (Communal singing is an activity often performed publicly in Shanghai.) The dynamic between the singers and their sentries suggests a forced display, as if they are being ordered to exhibit fun. (Due to the large size of the prints, every pore is open to scrutiny.) On the opposite wall is a seventh component – a photograph of a parrot perched in an enclosure, which you could almost hear being commanded to talk (or sing).
Scenes of revelry in which something is slightly off are also part of Chen Wei’s show, ‘The Last Man’, at Leo Xu Projects in the French Concession across town. Focusing on the development of Shanghai’s clubbing scene in the early 1990s – an era Chen is too young to have experienced first-hand – the artist reconstructs the era through physical props, sets and group choreography. (The top floor of the exhibition is given over to History of Enchantment, 2013–15, a kind of archive of false memory, featuring ‘historic’ flyers and publications Chen made himself.) If there is something akin to the work of Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand in Chen’s method, the results have an unreal drama and abandoned solitude of their own: a shaft of dry ice lit up over a crowd; Technicolor tiles slick with sweat; a floor laden with disco balls. One cropped shot of feet, mid-dance (Disco 1001, 2015) harks back to the torturous posing of Roberto Longo’s ‘Men in the Cities’ (1979); the air of unease is only heightened by the images’ lusciousness. It’s slick and sexy yet oddly gloomy work: the room-sized installation of black tiles and LED lights (The Drunken Boat, Shanghai, 2015), has more than a little of the mortuary about it. The melancholy, I thought, is the same one that Marcel Proust pointed to when he said that the only paradises are lost ones.
A different brand of nostalgia is displayed in ‘Relics’, an exhibition focusing on the painted and drawn sketches and 3DPlasticine maquettes by the late textile artist Maryn Varbanov, at MABSociety’s BANK space, which occupies the second floor of a former bank near the Rockbund Art Museum. A Bulgarian who also lived in Paris, Varbanov arrived in China as part of the first wave of foreign exchange students in 1951, and eventually set up a textile school within the Fine Art Academy in Hangzhou, as well as tutoring figures like the curator Hou Hanru. Archival images document some of Varbanov’s larger installations – impressive, intriguing things, which appear to link the avant-garde of post-liberation China and that of Eastern Bloc Conceptualism. Visually, they fall between the tender, brittle fibre works of Eva Hesse and Sheila Hicks’s expansive textile installations. Varbnanov’s maquettes have some of Hesse’s sickly colour palette and her sense of semi-organic, semi-geometric form; part-objects that intimate curtains, plaits and slippers, warped by a palpable erotic pulse. You could conclude from this show that Varbanov will occupy a place in future histories of contemporary art in China – not just for propagating installation as an artistic model, but also because he and his wife (the society hostess Madame Song) collaborated with Pierre Cardin, pre-empting the connection between fine art and fashion that prevails in Shanghai today. Or does it suffice to say that this was the most gorgeous show in town?
First published in Issue 178