Made in the PRD: Video Art Tales from China’s Subtropical Urban Sprawl

Can the newly launched Times Art Center Berlin, Asia’s first overseas museum offshoot, avoid nation-branding Chinese artists?

The Times Art Center Berlin (TACB), which opened its doors to the public in November last year, is the first satellite space of an Asian museum to be launched overseas. It’s an offshoot of the Guangdong Times Museum, which was itself born of a collaboration between a public institution, the Guangdong Museum of Art, and the Times Property Group, one of China’s largest real-estate developers. Given the general anxiety in Germany over a recent wave of Chinese acquisitions of hi-tech companies, which prompted the implementation of certain vetoes designed to limit market access to foreign investors, it is unsurprising that TACB’s corporate connection has spurred speculation regarding hidden business agendas. Yet, not only has such conjecture tended to overlook the more subtle, and frankly more interesting, soft-power strategies of influence – cultural export and branding, for example – it has also somewhat eclipsed discussion of the space’s inaugural exhibition.

Curated by MAXXI’s Hou Hanru, in tandem with TACB’s artistic director Xi Bei, ‘The D-Tale’ is a survey of video art produced in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) over the past 30 years. The show is articulated in three parts, running consecutively between December 2018 and April 2019: ‘Urban Explosion’, ‘Towards Autonomy’ and ‘The Politics of the Self’. The curatorial text situates ‘The D-Tale’ as part of ‘Operation PRD’, an exhibition programme inaugurated at the Guangdong Times Art Museum in 2016 with ‘Big Tail Elephants’ – the first retrospective of the eponymous collective, who were active in Guangzhou during the 1990s. Also curated by Hou, ‘Operation PRD’ aims at mapping the production of contemporary art in the region, starting from the premise that the confluence of diverse cultures in the area has engendered a distinctive aesthetic.

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

Since the launch of China’s reform programme in 1979, privatisation of agricultural and industrial production, as well as joint ventures with overseas investors, were trialled in the PRD before being greenlit elsewhere in the country. In 2003, CEPA (Mainland China and Hong Kong’s closer economic partnership arrangement) gave life to the Pan-PRD economic zone: nine mainland provinces allied with Hong Kong and Macau on regional co-operation. As the PRD began to be identified internationally as the factory of the world, there soon followed an eagerness to shape the region’s cultural identity and to increase opportunities for the production of contemporary art and its circulation in the global arena.

Hou has been at the forefront of promoting PRD contemporary art for more than two decades. In 2003, at the 50th Venice Biennale, he showcased the work of artists from the region for the first time in a major international event. There, as an integral section of his Arsenale installation ‘Z.O.U. – Zone of Urgency’, he presented ‘Canton Express’a curatorial project exploring the development of megalopolises throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

Two years later, the Second Guangzhou Triennial represented a major turning point in this attempt to delineate PRD cultural identity. During the 18 months preceding the opening, the curatorial team – composed of Hou, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Guo Xiaoyan – orchestrated a series of workshops, titled ‘D-Lab’, in which they invited local and international artists, designers and architects to discuss the specific conditions of the PRD while engaging in practice-led research. The Triennial served as an experiment to test the degree of influence that an international event could have in redefining the region, both within and beyond the contemporary-art sphere. In fact, ‘D-Lab’ not only generated the site-specific projects presented in the main Triennial exhibition, it also engendered the Guangdong Times Museum, when one of the event’s main sponsors, Times Property Group, commissioned architect Rem Koolhaas to design a permanent museum building. (By extension, of course, Berlin’s newly opened TACB is also part of this genealogy.)

The Second Guangzhou Triennial was so significant that, even before the show opened, writer and critic Hu Fang referred to it as a ‘great leap forward’ in PRD culture. The event built a framework for artists to start thinking and producing within certain parameters, focusing on the complexities of the region and, especially, reappraising their own identities as residents. In doing so, the Triennial did not solely chart existing cultural imaginaries shared across the region, it also instigated the production of artworks centred on the PRD rhetoric. Yang Jiechang’s PRD flag bearing the titular, tongue-in-cheek slogan ‘We Are Good at Everything except for Speaking Mandarin – PRD’, springs to mind, as does Cao Fei’s theatre project, PRD Anti-Heroes (both works 2005), which wove together stories from local people living in the subtropical urban sprawl.

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

Surprisingly, the introductory wall text welcoming visitors to TACB bears no mention of this background context to provide critical perspective on what the curatorial statement defines as ‘video art of the PRD’. ‘Urban Explosion’, the exhibition’s first instalment, which concluded in mid-January, was not explicitly presented as a survey; according to a rather loose logic, 23 videos, spanning more than three decades, were grouped across three projectors, four LED screens and a TV monitor. The first works exhibition visitors encounter are Lin Yilin’s Golden Journey (2011), centred on politically informed performative actions staged across San Francisco, one of Chen Shaoxiong’s ink-drawing animations, Ink City (2005), Tang Kwok-hin’s Present ‘Reminiscences of the Eastern Capital’ (2012–18), originally conceived as an 18-channel video in which each screen depicts a different district of Hong Kong, and the widely circulated COSplayers (2004), Cao Fei’s take on the tensions between cosplayers’ imagined identities and their daily lives. While sharing a generic interest in representing interactions between the city and its dwellers, it is hard to identify PRD-specific aspects in these works.

One of the gems of the exhibition, Jiang Zhi’s 2005 docufiction on the underground world of China’s transvestites, Our Love, was presented alongside another documentary, San Yuan Li (2003), directed and produced by Cao Fei and Ou Ning in 2003 for ‘Canton Express’, portraying a traditional village surrounded by high-rise developments. Despite the considerable number of short works screened on the five monitors placed throughout the space, ‘Urban Explosion’ collated over six hours of video material. A few additional guidelines to navigate the exhibition – a screening schedule to navigate the looping sequences longer than an hour, for example – would have made the works in the show more accessible to the audience.

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

While it might be argued that it makes sense for TACB’s first show to attempt a representation of the milieu in which the original Guangdong Times Museum was conceived, and to provide an idea of the context in which it currently operates, it seems the long-term vision for this new Berlin space is to become a laboratory for discussion and exchange. As Hou declared in his opening-night speech, future programming will aim at ‘avoiding national connotations, highlighting the tension between the individual and the social instead’. Let us hope this proves to be the case. Since Chinese artists, especially those born during the 1980s onwards, have long contested the tendency of the global art system to pigeonhole their output under the generic but highly marketable label of ‘Chinese art’, it is hard to imagine how the promotion of a ‘PRD art’ brand would be beneficial to them.

The second chapter of ‘The D-Tale’, ‘Episode II: Towards Autonomy’, is currently on view at TACB and will run until 23 February.

Main image: ‘The D-Tale, Video Art from the Pearl River Delta’, Times Art Center Berlin, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: TACB, Berlin; photograph: graysc.de

Francesca Girelli is content operations manager of frieze, based in London, UK.

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