The prospect of ‘Jungle’, a group exhibition of Chinese artists organized by Platform China that announced itself as free of curatorial control, was both exciting and uncertain. The exhibition was conceived to take shape over time based on artists’ recommendations, to provide a glimpse into the current practices of artists, artist groups and experimental forms of art institutions active across China. Initially the show boasted a list of more than 70 artists, which will grow continuously through the course of the exhibition (which finishes in mid-May) as each artist recommends another. Participating artists were encouraged to present any work they wanted, and were also invited to offer publications, web links or further reference materials to create an archive for the show.
One would expect to find such an initiative in an art centre or a biennal rather than in a commercial gallery. Yet one wondered what degree of commitment such a call would elicit from the Chinese artistic community. An attempt to offer this kind of panoramic view of the Chinese art world without any thematic or curatorial guidance could potentially prompt artists to submit works characterized by gimmicks and strategies, or, lacking a specific brief, could result in a random assortment of disparate works. Despite the show’s lofty aspirations, these were its unfortunate results.
The show does manage to reveal many of the stylistic, thematic and conceptual directions artists are currently pursuing, providing an index of both emerging and established artists on the scene. ‘Jungle’ boasts a substantial number of video works from artists both old and young, as well as paintings by well-known figures like Wang Xingwei, Wang Yin and Zhang Enli. For the most part, the works in the show lack political content; most artists chose instead to represent or reinvent the absurdities of everyday life with rather escapist works. The Shuangfei group, based in Hangzhou, contributed Shuangfei Rob a Bank (2009), a video of the artists acting as robbers, stealing construction materials from the site of a bank that was under renovation. The work provided a few laughs but not much more. A small selection of artists chose to make interventions within the exhibition space or created works in dialogue with the conceptual proposal of the exhibition. Liang Shuo, for example, altered the staircases in the gallery to throw the audience slightly off balance as they climb up or down (Re-modified Stairs, 2010). Other than that, most of the names and works are too familiar to ignite any further discussion. In this sense, the absence of a curatorial framework leaves the works pretty much at their own disposal.
In retrospect, the sense of dissatisfaction arising at the end of the viewing experience lies more in the problems of the art scene the exhibition tries to shed light on than in the show itself. The ‘jungle’ we are confronted with here is far less diverse, dynamic, sophisticated and organic than a real, tropical one where a diverse variety of species compete fiercely for air, space, nutrition and survival and as a result, become stronger in a complex organization formed and supported by one other. This exhibition is more like a small garden whose scale has been inflated within a short period of time by external motivations such as the art market. It lacks the density and depth of a scene supported by equally vigorous critical discussions. Thanks to ‘Jungle’, though, we realize that there is so much more to do.
First published in Issue 131