As China presses on with its Belt and Road Initiative, linking Eurasia, Oceania and Africa in an ambitious and controversial infrastructural project, 'Frontier: Re-assessment of Post-Globalisational Politics' at Shanghai's OCT Contemporary Art Terminal presents a timely survey of geopolitical concerns in art from China and the surrounding regions from the early 1990s to the present day. With nearly 60 works, the majority of which are videos, crammed into the gallery's 1,000 square-metre space, visitors are doomed to frustration as they move between flashing screens and overlapping sound cues. But this sense of anxiety might also be a fitting ambience, haunting the show's dizzying array of regional realities.
In the 1920s, Inner Asia scholar Owen Lattimore pioneered an approach to the study of frontiers that looked beyond nation-centered narratives of clearly defined borders to acknowledge the fundamental role of cross-cultural connections in shaping Eurasian history. Echoing Lattimore, curator Lu Mingjun brings together works that engage with the complex site of the frontier, mapping a constellation of artists' worldviews. Various pieces in 'Frontier' trouble the easy demarcations of present-day national structures. From Xu Zhen's piloting of toy tanks, planes and ships to penetrate the China-Myanmar border in his video work 18 Days (2006), to He Xiangyu's film The Swim (2017) in which the artist attempts to paddle over the Yalu River into North Korea, there is a militancy to these mainland Chinese artists' performances of trespassing across national borders.
In contrast, artists from Hong Kong and Taiwan scrutinize their bordered realities with more regional reflexivity. For instance, Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen's video Empire's Borders I (2008-09) does not visually depict any borders. Instead, it weaves together 16 narratives into a chilling critique of human rights abuses inherent in the border control policies of the US and Taiwan. In the film, the ways in which Taiwanese citizens are discriminated against by an American consular officer, and in turn, mainland Chinese arrivals are subjected to unfair inspection by Taiwanese immigration authorities, suggest a contagious abuse of power.
In a country dominated by the Han Chinese ethnic group, representations of the nomadic people and landscapes of the frontier have long been subject to politicization. Wang Yin's practice investigates the history of modern Chinese painting, which includes a tendency toward exoticizing ethnic minorities. Wang reintroduces these subjects in alien and estranged settings, exposing the clandestine workings of ethnic othering in this artistic tradition. Meanwhile, Shen Xin's film Counting Blessings (2014) unpacks the desire to appropriate and fetishize the Other: a power that might easily grow unchecked in attempts to represent them. Shen follows her father (the artist Shen Daohong) as he searches for 'authentic' images of Tibetan people and culture to use in his own paintings, and quietly reveals her own paralleled practice, which she keeps to afford her privileged Western art education. In doing so, Shen links the endurance of a certain aesthetic tradition with new capitalist relations.
One can detect a generational shift across the artworks in 'Frontier' - for instance from Wang (born in 1964), who unpicks national painting traditions to reflect on China's path to modernity, to Shen (born in 1990) whose critique of fetishization is aimed at the conditions of global capitalism. This shift has much to do with unprecedented mobility, the economic and cultural benefits that come with these new global flows and the gradual erosion of Eurocentric barriers and racist hierarchies. And in contrast to interest in the new Tianxia system which has garnered much momentum in the Chinese cultural sphere over the past decade (a strand of thinking that advocates a new Sinocentric world order), these younger artists are committed to the complexities of a cosmopolitan world. This leaves us hopeful that, as art from China grows in tandem with the country's economy, its participants will take up the responsibility to call for new socio-political forms of collaboration.
Main image: Chen Chieh-jen, Empire's Borders I, 2008–2009, installation view. Courtesy: the artist
First published in Issue 194