The Guangdong Times Museum’s latest group show, ‘Modes of Encounter: An Inquiry’, curated by Biljana Ciric, offers a critical perspective on the accelerated pace and increasing technologization of daily life in China. Recognizing that this phenomenon is exacerbated by globalization, the exhibition presents a diverse selection of international artists whose works are united by extensive research and prolonged field trips to China. Each was invited to reflect on and produce a newly commissioned piece over a period of two years.
Shuang Li, the only participating artist of Chinese nationality, relocated more than a year ago to Yiwu – the city with the world’s largest wholesale market – to develop her latest work, I Want to Sleep More but by Your Side (2018–19). Inspired by a news article about a Yiwu factory owner, who claimed he had predicted the November 2018 launch of the Gilets Jaunes grassroots political protest movement in France due to a sudden increase in orders for hi-vis jackets, the three-channel video installation stages a virtual encounter between a French mother and a teenage factory worker, who reflect on the simultaneously mobilizing yet alienating capacities of our contemporary media infrastructure. Similarly time-consuming to produce, Maris Voignier’s In China (2019) draws on two years of extensive discourse with women traders in Guangzhou, who comprise China’s largest African community. The film pieces together multiple narratives – using both documentary footage and scripted scenes – to observe how intersecting vectors of identity, from gender to race to citizenship, affect mobility within the world economy.
The show’s most physically imposing work is Collective Ruins (2019), a series of sculptures by Nicolás Paris. Composed of bricks and wire mesh – common materials used in Guangzhou for urban construction – these large structures divide the museum’s rectangular space into subsections that house other works or host the exhibition’s accompanying events. In Kateřina Šedá’s The Future Will Be Better (2019), a group of performers act as museum guides, engaging audience members in small talk until they agree to give them their contact details. The visitors are then invited to write down their visions for the future on notes, which are rolled up and inserted into the cracks between the bricks of Paris’s Collective Ruins. Šedá’s deployment of performers to gain the trust of gallerygoers evokes the disquieting artifice of China’s controversial social credit system, which ranks citizens not only by financial debt but by public behaviour. This theme concerning technology in China is echoed in Mario García Torres’s video installation, If Only I Thought of the Right Word (2019), in which an AI news anchor named Yanni (acquired by the artist from Chinese tech giant Sogou following extensive negotiations) delivers a monologue, filled with poetic aphorisms, on the merits of failure and idleness. Extending beyond the confines of the museum, Flash Fax (2019) by Yunyu ‘Ayo’ Shih takes the form of a rented house, shared with fellow artist Zhu Jianlin and curator Zhang Hanlu, which functions as a residency, an archive and an space for open debate, and which will remain operational after the exhibition closes.
However, despite the artworks’ multiple thematic intersections – and the obvious spatial interactions between Paris’s project and the others – the exhibition suffers from a lack of coherence, with artistic individuality prioritized, on the whole, over collaborative practice. And while the works on view do introduce or describe different experiences of time, the thing that links them is, essentially, a uniformly slow working methodology. While certain individual projects are strong, for a show that purports to put relationships and encounters at its centre, the outcome is less illuminating than it might have been.
Main image: Marie Voignier, Na China, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: Guangdong Times Museum