In the first of what the organisers promise will be a long-term project with regular presentations (although “…to be held once or twice a year in different ways…” is perhaps a little vague), Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in 798 has brought together a patchy, but (perhaps for that reason) representative selection of young Chinese artists to show the state of art production in China at this time.
This show is ostensibly based on the truism that the works and the artists’ sensibilities are "symptoms" of the society they have grown up in. The wall text for the show makes the case that after the "idealism" of the ‘90s, business culture took over and young people had to fit into tiny gaps in the “highly specialised division of labour and elaborate social structure[s]”. By doing so they could then only develop inwardly, using their new-found access to media and technology. I’m not sure I completely understood the argument, but the upshot is that "diversity" became the key to their lives and productions.
Of the eight artists included, there are two representatives of painting (Yan Heng, Yuan Yuan and Zang Kunkun), one photographer (Ren Hang), and Cheng Ran and Yan Xing (whom I have reviewed on ArtSlant before) are here represented with single videos though their work also encompasses installation and performance respectively. Li Wei and Lu Yang complete the roster and it's these two I would like to focus on here.
Diversity is certainly the case for Li Wei’s practice, in the past making use of hyper-realistic, humanoid wax sculptures (Hero, 2009, at Today Art Museum); lived-in installations (Being Absent, 2009, at Linda Gallery); and a rather nice tabletop work (I’m Calm, 2010, in the Starting group show, also at Today Art Museum); these latter two pieces suggest that Li can entertain conceptual work for its own sake without relying on the formal skill seen in the former work.
Li Wei, A Bag of Trash, 2012, behavior photography, 170×100 cm.;Photo credit: Zou Sehngwu / Courtesy of the artist and Iberia Center for the Arts.
In the current show two new pieces by Li Wei are included. As you enter the gallery four large blocks are arranged on the floor with large monochrome photos attached to the outer face of each box. These show a mini-narrative (Bag of Rubbish, 2012) of a black plastic bin-bag from which the artist emerges (the other player in this action being the artist’s Bichon dog investigating her owner’s odd activity). On the wall behind this, one cupboard for the fire equipment now appears six times (Fire Hydrant, 2012), closer inspection revealing that five have been painted on the wall in trompe-l'œil, with the addition of some doodle-like pen markings by the artist.
The latter piece is certainly effective in its minimal way, in its subtle adjustment of the gallery space. The former, though, seems to lack obvious meaning beyond the record of its own process or perhaps a rather simplistic relation between the artist and the titular bag. While Li Wei’s work is technically literate and holds out some hope conceptually, its inconsistency means that her work taken as a whole does not fulfil its possibilities of deeper meaning or significance.
Lu Yang has also made a feature of her technical literacy, to controversial effect. In the past Lu’s work has concentrated on her distinctive large-format graphics and videos laying out her scientific research and experiments into human and animal sensory manipulation. These experiments have had the ulterior motive of creating entertainment systems by exploiting the various physiological conditions she works with. The reality of this exploitation has been one of the strongest aspects of her work, which have always been left in an ambiguous state as to their realisation. In this way Lu’s proposals, with their purely aesthetic ends, successfully tweak the consciences of the audience, raising profound and disturbing ethical questions about the value and ends of scientific experiments.
Reanimation! Underwater Zombie frog ballet! 2011, Lu Yang’s major work in this exhibition again flirts with controversy, but this time Lu steps over a line into a problematic reality. This piece presents the results of her work with a laboratory to fulfill one of her experiments, featuring disembodied frogs' legs dancing to electrical impulses from a drum machine. All this is presented via an installation of the spotlit but now empty water tank, the wires and controller. On another wall is projected the video documentation of the experiment, but employing the fast cuts, split screens, theatrical setups and action shots of a music video to go with the drumming and twitching of the frogs’ legs.
The let down is that the artist (and gallery who take responsibility for displaying this piece) have covered their collective behinds by posting notices making it clear that the dead frogs used in the piece were recycled from previous medical dissection work “For the avoidance of cruelty to animals…”. If the artist was to respect the aims and meanings of the work, as they are laid out in her own proposals and in her own uncompromising style, then I believe this notice is unnecessary (and also that the remains of the frogs should have been left in the installation). This would have forced a much more powerful confrontation with the ethical issues that Lu unfortunately skirts in the current version of the piece. The experiment obviously took place, and Lu has made a point of claiming that she would like all her projects to be realised.
I had far greater respect for Lu Yang’s previous works that left the reality of these experiments ambiguous. These displayed a high level of skill in the technical and spectacular aspects of the pieces. They allowed the audience to be shocked and to confront the reasons for their shock, forcing them to question these reactions.
Overall, the works in Symptom veer from the somewhat predictable (in particular the paintings), to the thought-provoking (Li Wei and Lu Yang as I’ve already discussed, but also the wonderful works by Yan Xing and Cheng Ran) – in most cases thankfully avoiding an over-reliance on spectacle (with the exception of Lu Yang). Overall the stars of the show are the media works, which while in some cases lacking what might be called "maturity", hold out huge hopes for the future.
(Image on top right: Lu Yang, Reanimation! Underwater Zombie frog ballet!, 2012, Video; Courtesy of the artist and Iberia Center for the Arts)