Proposals to Surrender

Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai, China

As I was standing on a stairway signing the agreement that would allow me to enter ‘Proposals to Surrender’, someone squeezed by and touched me lightly on the arm. I raised my head to catch a woman’s friendly smile. In no time, she had slipped into the exhibition to become one of the ‘birds’ in Eva Kot’átková’s Becoming a Bird (Short Staged Attempt to Escape a Reality) (2016). To see the show, visitors must sign a three-copy contract and present their ID cards: rites that serve as preparation for entering a highly prescribed space where seemingly random encounters are pre-conceived and carefully planned. 

‘Proposals to Surrender’ is an exhibition of live works by artists from Bangkok, Berlin, Los Angeles, Melbourne, New York, Paris, Prague and Shenzhen, organized by the independent curator Biljana Ciric – a veteran of Shanghai’s art scene. The space is filled with performance props and mise en scène including plants, wooden furniture made from recycled museum materials and a subtle fragrance composed by Norwegian chemist and scent researcher Sissel Tolaas. These elements are the remnants of two ‘occasions’ hosted by the artist Isabel Lewis during the exhibition’s opening and a few days subsequently. Lewis, who trained as a dancer, stages her works as social gatherings in which she dances, DJs and speaks directly to the audience, aiming to evoke the format of the ancient Greek symposium. Responding to each specific crowd and occasion, Lewis improvises her movements, speech and music to generate something ‘between a bar, a lecture and a salon’: a convivial atmosphere for bodily relaxation and sensory stimulation beyond the visual. In Shanghai, for example, the artist spoke to a pregnant lady about the sensations she was experiencing.

The plants from Lewis’s ‘occasions’ provide an ideal setting for Kot’átková’s human ‘birds’. For the piece, the artist asks a group of performers to enact the process of transformation into a flying animal without recourse to a script – by means, solely, of bodily movements, facial expressions and sounds. I caught sight of the girl who had passed me at the entrance, mid-transfiguration amongst a flock of companions.

The exhibition is also filled with a conspicuous assortment of sounds, many of which emanate from Ana Prvački’s Daily Practice, Tuning (2016). The artist has invited local musicians, both professionals and amateurs – playing instruments that included, when I visited, guitars, accordions and flutes – to carry out their daily practice routines in the space. At a certain moment every day, the musicians take up their spots, as if on a public square, and perform simultaneously, without any attempt to harmonize their instruments’ varying pitches and melodies. This work is a brilliant attempt to deconstruct the exhibition setting as a highly ritualized site.

‘Proposals to Surrender’ presents many ingenious practices that challenge the art industry’s commodification of artistic thinking. Yet, it also requires a significant level of investment, in terms of both time and money, on the part of the host institution. In this sense, perhaps, it offers a wry commentary on the typical mode of contemporary art consumption in China – specifically in Shanghai, where many museums and institutions favour spectacular shows with mass appeal. ‘Proposals to Surrender’ poses valuable questions as to what constitutes not only a meaningful exhibition-viewing experience but also meaningful museum practice in ways that challenge both audiences and the local institutional context as a whole.

Main image: Eva Koťátková,  Becoming a Bird (Short Staged Attempt to Escape a Reality), 2016, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai

Carol Yinghua Lu is a writer and curator based in Beijing, and is a contributing editor of frieze.

Issue 187

First published in Issue 187

May 2017

Most Read

With the opening of the 15th Istanbul Biennial this week, a guide to the best exhibitions around town
Ahead of the openings of EXPO Chicago and the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, a guide to the best exhibitions...
Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924, oil on canvas, 1.2 x 1.5 m. Courtesy: Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut and Ettie Stettheimer
The Jewish Museum, New York, USA
Highlights of the exhibitions and performances taking place during Berlin Art Week 
Reflections, a favourite verse, and a new poem dedicated to one of the English language’s most renowned poets of the...
Nicole Eiseman, Sketch for a Fountain (Skizze für einen Brunnen), 2017, Skulptur Projekte 2017, bronze, gips, wasserbecken. Courtesy: Skulptur Projekte Münster
Various venues, Münster, Germany
Buoyed by Manifesta announcing it will dock in the port city in 2020, is Marseille becoming the new LA? 
Ahead of this year’s DC Open and gallery share Okey-Dokey, a round-up of the best shows across the Rhineland cities
From artist Enoch Cheng’s nocturnal balletics to fascist violence in Charlottesville, rethinking the political agency...
Opened 15 months ago but remaining empty until now, the inaugural show at the landmark Palestinian Museum in Birzeit
The dual sides to the city’s Cph Art Week
Queer cringe at the BBC and other diversity dilemmas
Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books), 2017, under construction in Kassel as part of documenta 14. Photograph: © Rosa Maria Ruehling
On documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel
Chris Kraus’s biography of the first female ‘Great Writer as Countercultural Hero’
Remembering the artist whose occultist experiments transformed her body and biography into art 
In this microcosm of the disenfranchisement of ‘Late Great Britain’, what use is art?
Public debate around Confederate insignia has little to do with historical fact, and everything to do with collective...
A multi-faceted collaboration between Matthew Barney, Ragnar Kjartansson and the Iceland Dance Company reflects on...
What Luc Besson’s Valerian and a number of recent artists’ 3D films are getting right about our current reality
The removal of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore shows decisiveness after years of inaction – already they stand...
Yayoi Kusama to open her own museum; Confederate monuments removed in Baltimore; David Roberts Art Foundation to leave...
From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017

frieze magazine

September 2017