As China's Global Ambitions Grow, Artists Trouble its Borders

'Frontier' at OCAT, Shanghai traces contemporary Chinese art's geopolitical concerns and the new complexities of living in a cosmopolitan world

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.

body-frontier_ocat_5.jpg

'Frontier: Re-assessment of Post-Globalisational Politics', 2017–2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: OCAT, Shanghai

'Frontier: Re-assessment of Post-Globalisational Politics', 2017–2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: OCAT, Shanghai

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.

body-2.jpg

Shen Xin, Forms Escape: Prologue, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Shen Xin, Forms Escape: Prologue, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

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.

‘Frontier: Re-assessment of Post-Globalisational Politics’ runs at OCAT Shanghai until 11 March.

Main image: Chen Chieh-jen, Empire's Borders I, 2008–2009, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Alvin Li is a writer, and contributing editor of frieze, based in Shanghai, China.

Issue 194

First published in Issue 194

April 2018

Most Read

In further news: white supremacist vandals attack Rothko Chapel; Israeli minister bans art produced in solidarity with...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018