Installed on the second floor of the Power Station of Art (PSA), Francis Alÿs’s Rehearsal I (1999–2004) is something of a touchstone for this year’s 12th Shanghai Biennale. In the half-hour video, a pillarbox-red Volkswagen Beetle attempts to get up a steep, sandy track somewhere in Tijuana, Mexico. It revs, accelerates, gets half way; then it falters, slides backwards and tries again. A brass band plays in the background, splutteringly. The car never crests the hill. Part of a series made by the Mexico City-based artist exploring the unusefulness of linear models of ‘development’ in relation to the global South, Rehearsal I neatly maps curator Cuauhtémoc Medina’s titular notion of ‘Proregress’ (a word borrowed from the experimental US poet E.E. Cummings). Subtitled ‘Art in the Age of Historical Ambivalence’, the biennial considers modernity not as a stable state of arrival, but as something always liable to interruption – for better and for worse – by earlier values, beliefs and ways of being: a version of progress that carries within it the seeds of its own demise.
The synchronicity between Medina (who is Mexican) and Alÿs is no surprise: the two have worked together often and for extended periods many times over the past two decades. (Last week, Alÿs opened a concurrent solo exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum. It’s two major installations, Tornado, 2000–10, and Exodus, 2014–18, in which a girl continually knots and unknots her hair, extend the biennial’s focus on circularity and repetition.) It occurs to me, however, walking through Alÿs’s works at PSA, that his work might stand metonymically for ‘Proregress’ in more ways than one. I often imagine that curating a large-scale international exhibition these days must have something of the Sisyphean magnitude of trying to drive a very old car up a very steep hill. Between being globally representative and locally sensitive, politically engaged but not hypocritical, showcasing new work and demonstrating art-historical savvy, having a theme but not overdetermining and so on, it is easy to get stuck in the sand. Or, as in Alÿs’s Choques (2005), a nine-channel video installation that shows the artist tripping and falling down on a street corner from multiple different angles, there are a great number of angles from which to be seen to slip up.
The 12th Shanghai Biennale is not a great show; it is, as a Hong Kong-based curator friend of mine put it: ‘perfectly proficient’. The curatorial statement is intelligible and timely – though it’s one-step-forward-two-steps-back approach to progress is hardly original: Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale was predicated on the dialetical motion of history while, closer to home, present-day echoes of cold war antagonisms were the subject of the recent Busan Biennale in South Korea, curated by Cristina Ricupero and ex-frieze editor Jörg Heiser. Indeed, in Shanghai two years ago, Raqs Media Collective’s biennial, ‘Why Not Ask Again?’, similarly challenged Western notions of modernity in an exhibition whose most insistent motif was the circle. (Historical return at the meta-level: a biennial spooking its own ghost.)
Bringing together 67 artists from 26 countries – and representing the most significant presentation of Latin American artworks in China to date – ‘Proregress’ hangs together reasonably cohesively around certain through-lines. These include the endurance of particular forms of rite or ritual in spite of social transformation and colonial upheaval: as in, for example, Claudia Martínez Garay’s collection pre-Colombian Peruvian grave goods and Suki Seokyeong Kang’s Black Matt Oriole (2016–17), installed in close succession on the exhibition’s first floor. The latter, a three-screen video installation with a sculptural component of stacked canvases, activated on the opening evening by a pair of performers, draws on the highly codified jeongganbo musical notation system of the Korean Joseon dynasty (which ended, in 1910, with the beginning of Japanese colonial rule). It suggests a kind of freedom effected by constraint while also recalling, formally, Western minimalism’s deep entanglement with Eastern traditions.
Elsewhere, on the exhibition’s second floor, the antagonism between humankind’s progress and the survival of the non-human world is foregrounded in works that range from the turgid and literal (Clemencia Echeverri’s River by Assault, 2018) to the intriguingly speculative (artist Amalia Pica and filmmaker Rafael Ortega’s study of communication in great apes, presented as a video of gestures and a sound installation). Yet throughout the exhibition, too many works fall back on a documentary mode of presentation that feels flat. Yes: art should deal with the urgencies of our time, but isn’t the point to communicate them differently? With a different kind of resonance?
This lack of imagination is typified by Fernando Sánchez Castillo’s Swing (2018), commissioned for the biennial, which is the first work to greet viewers in PSA’s cavernous entrance hall. A monumental bronze of a generic, 18th-century-looking gentleman, bends over backwards, as if doing the limbo, while a rope swing hangs from his torso. An allegory for ‘noble’ Enlightenment (Western) ideals, if not quite toppled at least taken down a peg or two, made laughable? It’s too easy: statues and the Great Men they supposedly immortalize are old fodder for critique. Many have previously taken potshots (and come nearer the mark): from Meekyoung Shin’s renditions of such figures in soap, to Raqs Media Collective’s Coronation Park, which recreated relics of the British Raj in the Giardini in Venice in 2015. So, too, the Enlightenment has been a conceptual bogeyman at least since schools of thought developed the prefix ‘post-’. Unless your disinterment is going to bring up something new, it’s best to let fallen idols lie.
By contrast, one of the biennial’s strongest pieces, Michael Rakowitz’s The Looting (2007–ongoing), literally recreates missing monuments. In an ongoing series, the artist has reproduced (in papier-mâché made from discarded Middle Eastern newspapers and food packages) artefacts looted from the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad following the 2003 invasion of the country. Laid out on a long white-painted table, 27 items are each accompanied by a museum-style label detailing their provenance and the story of their loss/re-finding. There is something unbearably poignant about these stand-ins and their stick-and-glue language; a childlike-desire not to let go. Deceptively simple, they evoke a trauma at once specific (the US-led invasion of Iraq and its attendant horrors) and generalized (a sense of collective cultural loss, also in the West), and the complicated relationship between the two. These replicas in ‘poor’ materials also how things can never quite return in the same way, there is a loss that remains. (Of faith, perhaps? Of hope?)
Someone remarked to me that ‘Proregress’ is a show critical of every nation but China. This is not entirely true, though it did feed into rumours about the delayed publication of the full artist list. (It appeared two days before the opening.) Enrique Ježik’s In Hemmed-In Ground (2018), another new commission installed in the ground-floor atrium, spells out ‘One Step Forwards Two Steps Back’, in Chinese characters. Constructed from bundles of folded cardboard of the kind gathered for recycling by poor street scavengers, the text forms a knee-high obstacle course at ground level. Legible from PSA’s upper floors, the statement references Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s analysis of the Second Party Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, in 1903: the crisis in the party after a split between different factions and how to overcome it in pursuit of the greater good. Directly mimicking the kind of political sloganeering still employed by China’s ruling Communist Party, the work insinuates a sacrificial logic of progress that takes on a particular resonance here. (At least in English, the title of Lenin’s text has a subversive ring of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, between 1958 and ’62, during which some 30 million people are estimated to have died as a result of industrialization policies.) Censorship is also directly addressed in the Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo’s performance work, Nothing about Nothing (2018), in which at the artist (and then a team of volunteers) will continuosly re-paint one of the museum’s already white corridors white: a potent critique of the art institution as a place from which to say anything at all.
It struck me, seeing Andrea Fraser’s bold and important 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics (2018) – a graphic representation of political donations from the board members of 125 US art museums (red for Republican; blue for Democrat) – how meaningless that work is in a Chinese context. PSA is the only government-funded contemporary arts institution in China, with the Shanghai Biennale its flagship programme. Other museums and foundations here are privately owned and operated – often through opaque relationships with local government or as bargaining chips in real estate deals and, increasingly, in Shanghai at least, partnering on exhibitions with Western commercial galleries. In China, of course, Fraser’s pie charts would all be one colour.
China has not experienced the stuttering, endlessly deferred modernity of the Latin American context in which Alÿs’s early-2000s ‘Rehearsals’ are rooted; its hyper-accelerated post-’78 development is something closer to the maximalist, arcade-game sci-fi of Lu Yang’s installation Material World Knight (2018), with its AIs and exoskeletons. The ‘rise of China’ has unfolded with its own specific unevenesses – rapid on some fronts (economic, technological); hesitant on others (social, democratic). The public opening of the biennial on 10 November coincided with the closing day of the inaugural China International Import Expo, taking place on the other side of Shanghai. In his opening address to the Expo, President Xi Jinping stated that, over the next 15 years, his country would purchase some USD$30 trillion of foreign goods and USD$10 trillion of foreign services. The world, implicated, waits to see how China’s ‘pro-regress’ continues from here.
Main image: Lu Yang, Material World Knight (detail), 2018, video installation, 12th Shanghai Biennale, Power Station of Art, Shanghai. Courtesy: 12th Shanghai Biennale