Artist Xu Zhen currently is the top dog in the Shanghai art scene, an energetic young artist bound to play the game of a media-savvy eclecticist who doesn't shy back from any displays of frivolously ironic conceptualism and cynical provocation. He's working under several aliases now, and also runs a website. But his show at Beijing's Long March Space last Winter also exposed the shortcomings of his game: the mother of a Guinean toddler was paid for her daughter to appear in a gallery scenario including an animatronic vulture, recreating the infamous 1994 photograph of a starving Sudanese baby girl stalked by a real vulture (a video version was shown in Basel's Art Unlimited this June). Layering levels of voyeurism, exploitation and shock on top of the ones already associated with the original photo does nothing to actually allow political or aesthetic insight – it just serves to create, so to speak, the animatronic imitation of an actual debate. Where censorship and a lack of platforms for critical exchange prevent this debate from happening, this kind of stuff fills the void. Just compare Xu Zhen's piece to Alfred Jaar's The Sound of Silence of 1995: the latter's is a filmic-textual essay set in a kind of choreographed installation, based on the story of the same photograph, also working with shock and voyeurism. Jaar shows you the original photograph, combined with a blinding flash of lights, as if burning it into your brain tissue. He's not however out to just feed on the shock value and heightening it in terms of exploiting yet another person (and by way of that making the exhibition visitor an unwillingly complicit as well), but actually creates a thought-provoking collision of political engagement, ethical guilt, and aesthetic analysis.
I could go on but back to Shanghai: here, Xu Zhen – having renamed himself into an artistic entity called 'MadeIn' – dominated the central hall of the ShContemporary Discoveries section with what seemed a piss-take of the typical Expo or Olympics sculpture involving fake grass, decorative columns and odd mannequins – but again one couldn't help but think that he fed on the logic of hugeness rather than deflating it. Even more ambitious was his show at Shangart Gallery, spread over several spaces. Again authored under the alias 'MadeIn', he created a fake group show displaying works of Mid-Eastern artists. And again he pulled the registers on the pipe organ of grand gestures, and pushed the usual buttons: one space is a swimming pool with doodled paintings placed around it, another space features Styrofoam pieces reminiscent of the kind of bulky packaging material used for TV sets etc. But here, the cut-outs are not for home entertainment but for miniature mosques and life-size machine guns. As said, the usual buttons. There is also a miniature oil well pump made of barbed wire.
Rumours abound that supposedly the show was threatened with being closed due to diplomatic concerns and/or, simply, censorship, but one can't help but think that that is yet another button being pushed. Even if true, how frustrating it must be if one feels obliged to show solidarity with a censored artist or writer whose work one otherwise isn't necessarily convinced of. All of that said, Xu Zhen remains an active force in Shanghai, and there are certainly more, and possibly better, things to come (Hans-Ulrich Obrist, for that matter, in conversation said something along these lines).
The most talked-about group show was 'Bourgeoisified Proletariat', organised in a new building, the Songjiang Creative Studio, on the outskirts of Shanghai, just across from Ikea (press release here). Everything, not necessarily in a bad way, looked slightly improvised, although the show included large ambitious installations. And – surprise, surprise – a certain 'MadeIn' was listed as one of the co-curators, and one of the artists in the show. Here, Mr. 'MadeIn' created a disco-space with a huge dopamine-molecule in the middle entitled Love in Fact Results from an Excess of Dopamine in the Brain (2009), plus all sorts of (English) sentences on the floor made of necklace chains (Metal Language, 2009), including banal stuff such as 'did you bring the DVDs I asked you' next to more implicational-sounding ones such as 'job what job?' But what got us more talking on the way back in the car was Kan Xuan's sound installation Dead, which we all felt wasn't maybe 100% fully convincingly realized on the aesthetic-technical level, and certainly also we didn't fully understand (where were the sources from, what was it really about?), but in any case the screams and voices in it created a haunting sense of urgency. Same for Zhang Peili's Unnecessary Collision (2009), an installation involving two bones clashing through a remote-controlled mechanism, accompanied by a literally bone-shaking sound. This may sound wannabe-spooky, but was in the best sense deadpan. (Peili is a super-important veteran of Video art in China, and is heading the leading video department at the China Art Academy of Hangzhou.) Yang Fudong's video installation My Heart was Touched Last Year (2007) involved two glamorous-looking (Shanghai?) ladies looking at the camera on two screens in separate rooms, back to back. In both scenes the punch line was that they never, by way of editing manipulation, blinked. A bit too one-liner for my taste, but others liked the piece.
Third and last postcard from Shanghai will include a studio visit with Zhang Huan, who is more than just a sort of hardcore no-nonsense forerunner to Xu Zhen, and a short discussion of the best group show currently on show in Shanghai, 'History in the Making: Shanghai 1979-2009'. Bear with me.