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Chen Tong & Tian Hui: What Might it Mean to ‘Think Like a Mall’?

A double solo show in a luxury Shenzhen shopping mall poses questions about the spectacle-driven nature of the space it occupies

The O’Plaza mall at OCT Harbour is one of Shenzhen’s many luxury shopping destinations. Intentionally derailing attempts to traverse it in a straight shot, its strategically placed escalators, mirrored surfaces and false exits lead visitors to crisscross its floors and offerings. Along this glittering axis are the 20 carefully placed vitrines comprising Boxes Art Space. 

Founded in 2013 by the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and an unnamed commercial partner, Boxes Art Space rests on the assertion that ‘the art exhibition and economic consumption can exist together.’ The gallery’s curator, Fan Bo, notes that our habits and tastes are subconsciously formed through consumption; one aim of the project is thus to parse the patented narratives of luxury and question their motives. This gallery model has been pursued by others, most notably Adrian Cheng, who recently opened the fourth of his K11 Art Malls in Guangzhou. But what Boxes Art Space seems to offer – which other mall galleries have lacked – is a reflexive and critical lens on the mall itself, rather than simply seeing it as a glitzy analogue to the so-called white cube. Chen Tong and Tian Hui’s exhibition, ‘Overall Situation’, overtly gestures at the broader economic history underwriting this commercial context, alluding, respectively, to the opening up of the Pearl River Delta region and the rise of financialization.

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Chen Tong & Tian Hui, installation view, 2018, Boxes Art Space, O’Plaza Mall, Shenzen. Courtesy and photograph: Boxes Art Space, Shenzen

Chen Tong & Tian Hui, installation view, 2018, Boxes Art Space, O’Plaza Mall, Shenzen. Courtesy and photograph: Boxes Art Space, Shenzen

Boxes Art Space’s open plan harnesses the meandering layout of O’Plaza. At the main entrance, the first ‘box’ makes for a bold introduction. An empty vitrine bearing a quote from Karl Marx is part of New York-based artist Tian Hui’s series ‘Psychological Counselling Proposal for the Capitalist Sweet Life’. Taking as its starting point the 2007–08 worldwide financial crisis, it comprises several empty vitrines inscribed with quotes, often gathering dust within them, alongside others showcasing drawings of politicians, philosophers, economists and revolutionary theorists – the authors of our current financial situation. The empty boxes seem as much a part of Tian’s message as those in which portraits are placed at odds with the conventions of display (hung on the ceiling or laying on the floor). Emptiness is presented as resistance to the commodification of space, while the child-like quality of Tian’s drawings alludes to the episodic nature of economy, in which our current moment will soon be historicized.

Shown alongside Tian’s work is that of veteran Guangzhou artist and writer Chen Tong, whose various activities include running Libreria Borges and the video-art archive Video Bureau. At Boxes Art Space, Chen also proves himself to be a screenwriter. Based on the first chapter of his eponymous novel, the series ‘Oi Kwan Hotel’ takes the form of a spy thriller, with each box containing the setting for a subsequent scene. The story centres around the Canton Fair, the oldest and largest trade fair in China; it is symbolic for its role in the establishment of Deng Xiaoping’s special economic zones, through which China first opened its doors to foreign investment. The Oi Kwan Hotel, an art deco building that was once the tallest in southern China, has hosted the opening and closing receptions of the fair since its inception in 1957.

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Chen Tong & Tian Hui, installation view, 2018, Boxes Art Space, O’Plaza Mall, Shenzen. Courtesy and photograph: Boxes Art Space, Shenzen

The two series culminate in the main gallery on the rooftop of the mall. Chen’s storyboard is depicted through a series of ink paintings, while Tian’s sketches are further swathed in quotations. With their thoughtfully developed narratives, both works demonstrate a commitment to long-term research; their situation within the mall challenges the space’s typically fragmentary, spectacle-driven configuration. At the same time, the show inevitably draws attention to commerce-deficit spaces and serves effectively to occupy the last possible sites of indeterminacy that a mall can provide. In this way, it runs the risk of merely adding cultural capital where capital is already rife. But perhaps these various commercial ecologies, when considered side by side, allow the exhibition to pose questions about our broader social environment. Might they ask, in the words of environmental philosopher Steven Vogel, what it might mean to ‘think like a mall’?

Chen Tong & Tian Hui runs at Boxes Art Space, O'Plaza Mall, Shenzen, until 10 August.

Main image: Chen Tong & Tian Hui, installation view, 2018, Boxes Art Space, O’Plaza Mall, Shenzen. Courtesy and photograph: Boxes Art Space, Shenzen

Ming Lin is a writer-researcher based in Hong Kong currently looking at landscapes and architectures of supply and demand. 

Issue 197

First published in Issue 197

September 2018
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