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Surprise Surprise
by Robin Peckham

“Something Will Inevitably Happen”

K11 Art Village

Bldg. 2, Changqing Gardens Central Commercial Street, Dongxihu District, Wuhan

18 December 2011 - 13 February 2012


“The Things they are a-Changing”

K11 chi Art Space

2/F, 628 Jiefang Dadao, Jianghan District, Wuhan

19 December 2011 - 30 January 2012


It is with some suspicion that any critical observer would approach an artist residency and exhibition program in the second-tier inland city of Wuhan organized by the self-proclaimed Hong Kong “art mall” and its parent company, the property developer New World. Nevertheless, in mid-December a small group, mostly in from Beijing and including such luminaries as curators Bao Dong, Colin Chinnery, and Nikita Cai, brought together nominally to participate in a roundtable discussion on the state of things, gathered in the city to shuffle back and forth between two distinct if interlinked exhibitions in two separate K11 locations. At the larger of the two, a new art village for which this was the inaugural exhibition, local poet Li Jianchuan, gallerist Pi Li, and artist Gong Jian had curated a project that productively located in the midst of a wide spectrum of work from across China--much of it admittedly second-rate--indications that something was happening. Indeed, when news came the day of the opening that both Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il had passed away, we understood that something had already happened.

Work in the exhibition focuses on intervention--a common theme in a year during which the politics of Chinese art was dominated by figures like Ai Weiwei and Carol Yinghua Lu--albeit in a mode slightly more nuanced than usual. Rather than intervention into the order of neoliberal political signification, artists here instead meld art and life in rather unlikely ways, viewing aesthetic practice as a form of everyday life rather than elevating the tasks of the everyday into an aesthetic context. In a segment of the exhibition focusing on two-dimensional work (predictably, for this kind of thematic, the weakest section on view), Yu Xiaozhen weaves the strands of an unprepared canvas in and out between themselves, creating a grid painting out of nothing with no material other than the canvas itself; Zhan Rui creates more visually formidable grid paintings out of more typical and responsive means, coloring squares based on statistical changes in the weather and patterns of sexual activity. Lee Kit more thoroughly transforms his two-dimensional practice into a form of living, exhibiting one of his narrative groupings of painted cloth alongside a handwritten letter to a Hong Kong bureaucrat. The irony of this gesture, in a space sponsored by one of the oligarch families that keeps such figures in power, is surely lost on many.

If these paintings seem overly illustrative in some way, the group of installation works in the exhibition fares little better. Li Jinghu includes a series of neon strips bent to resemble the infamous visage of Lenin in profile, placing the light column as if it were a lightning bolt striking the ground. Yang Xinguang contributes a broken wooden fence hacked nearly to pieces, creating a theatrical space for the lonesome gestures of the poetic mind. Wang Sishun’s Uncertain Capital takes the form of a metal cube on a solitary pedestal, a monumental byproduct of his ongoing efforts to confuse the markets for currency, bullion, and raw material. This latter project seems to constitute a core effort of the exhibition, particularly as it allows for the artist to engage with discourses beyond the art historical in a potentially lasting way: by actually negotiating and potentially subverting systems not strictly related to the gallery exhibition circuit, Wang seeks to create a third path for conceptual artists working today, reliant neither on the techniques of scale and repetition nor on consumable deliverables.


Yu Tan, Dictionary of Keywords, 2009; Courtesy of the artist

The central focus of the exhibition, however, is almost certainly its interest in performative and documentary video. Several familiar pieces resurface here: Xu Tan’s ongoing Keywords project, for instance, links this exhibition to discourses of language and education already more established within the pantheon of contemporary intervention, as does Yan Xing’s Daddy Project, for which the artist stood in a corner of a Beijing exhibition space and recorded himself, back to the camera, telling the story of his relationship to his absent father. Hu Xiangqian also chimes in with one of his lesser known videos, a project for which he attempted to gain votes for the mayorship of a small southern village without actually registering (or legally qualifying) for the election. The result is a dissection of the heart of electoral politics in its mediation without any actual democratic follow-through--and, in that way, not so far from the situation of post-democracy now so prevalent throughout the Western world.

Further surprises come from Wuhan artists Li Yu and Liu Bo, who have transformed their practice--formerly focused on recreating in dramatic photographs short, quirky blurbs found in local newspapers--into a performative video series. In a set of moving images, here they record video of situations, similarly lifted from newspapers, in which nothing ever actually happens: in one, a skimply clad young woman stands outside of a mall, staring into space under the influence of drugs for hours on end; in another, a taxi passenger leans forward, almost touching the windshield, for the duration of the ride. In this world these videos loop without end, but each one of the actual news stories came to a dramatic conclusion: in the case of the taxi passenger, he passed the ride in silence before stabbing the driver and running away upon reaching his destination. Here, however, nothing is inevitable.

Initially, the same would appear to be the case in the work of Li Liao: having left a message on an online forum that he would be standing in a particular public space at a certain time waiting for a stranger to slap him in the face, he did indeed appear at the appointed time and place, closing his eyes and nodding his head to his music for much of the duration of the video. Occasionally, however, someone walks up from behind or from off camera and gives him a whack across the ears--here, something does happen, and it happens hard. In another video, Cai Kai records two professional athletes playing tennis across a highway, similarly calling attention to the contested nature of such public spaces but also, in his own way, creating a spontaneous event that might, if all turns out well, just possibly allow for something new to happen.

At the other K11 site, this time within the backside of a new mall development, artists Gong Jian and Wei Yuan had brought together a smaller group of artists--Hu Qingtai, Li Liao, and Wei Yuan--in a different atmosphere altogether. “Something Will Inevitably Happen,” the larger exhibition, is a promise; “The Things they are a-Changing,” on the other hand, constitutes resolve. It is much more visibly an artist-organized project, and the two divergent spatial situations of these exhibitions are instructive in their structural contrasts. Whereas “Something Will Inevitably Happen” makes its point clear despite a surplus of work seemingly unnecessary to the central curatorial conceit--and perhaps with the help of a bit more illustration than strictly warranted--this exhibition consists of a seemingly endless series of room, each punctuated with what could very possibly be the single most engrossing work of either exhibition: in each space, a pair of speakers plays back recordings of phone calls Li Liao made to every contact in his mobile phone, promising them, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, that he would survive past his thirtieth birthday. Again he fabricates events out of nowhere, but these events are tangible; rather than bringing people together to a particular place in a more bodily way, the artist rather brilliantly transforms these conversations into objects that spin off and continue their dialogues of their own accord.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, three further video projects from Li Liao underline his fascination with the objectified event. In Spring Breeze, he employs a white-collar friend to lock him by the neck to an office building in the morning, sitting still for hours until the working day concludes. In Swimming Pool, he treads water in a clean blue pool, holding a blue bucket full of water over his head while trying not to spill any. In Single Bed, he tires himself out in order to fall asleep flat out on the ground in a public square, soon surrounded by a gaping crowd in an hilarious inversion of Chu Yun’s This is XX project by which a young woman is transformed into sculpture by putting her to sleep in the exhibition space. Other stand-out pieces in the exhibition come from Wei Yuan, first in Elastic, where he stretches a rubber band across the screen until it snaps, picks up the longest piece, and repeats the process until he can reform the circle of the original with tiny fragments of rubber pieces. He is also at his best in Failure, in which he walks across a low fence dividing a highway median as if it were a balance beam. All of these performative gestures clearly borrow something from video pioneer Zhang Peili, who mastered the art of utilizing the screen to consolidate the objecthood of an object in a performance context, and from his student Zhang Liaoyuan, who militarizes this process in a violent approach to the terrain of the city.

What these exhibitions confirm is that, even in a space out of time--or at least outside of the hegemonic time of the Beijing gallery-studio complex--the fabrication of the event can be construed as an object and allowed to engage in asynchronous relations beyond the reach of the artist himself. Whereas the status of the event is typically tied to the relational dynamics of site-specificity, locality, presence, and the body, the new directions indicated in this groundbreaking work allow for other possibilities by which the performative initiation of a gestural politics can ignite new paths of understanding outside of control and outside of prediction. As we discussed during the roundtable conversation accompanying these exhibition events, this approach to performance-without-a-plan can be a welcome alternative to the more straightforward politics of social intervention that seems to have infiltrated the mainstream of institutional curatorial work in much of the Chinese art world: any plan with a foreseeable result is bound to fail, because even its best outcomes are already accounted for. Some things might inevitably happen, but it is contingency that allows for this declaration. I find it odd that such a dubious exhibition has left me so enthusiastic about new possibilities for artistic practice in this situation, but perhaps it is a question of resolve--at any rate, something has happened, and something has changed.

~Robin Peckham

(Image at top: Wang Sishun, Uncertain Capital, coins, 2009; Courtesy of the artist)

Posted by Robin Peckham on 1/15/12

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