As one of the more visible providers of a critique of the centre/periphery model of cultural development in the early 2000’s, a new exhibition by curator Hou Hanru is highly anticipated. ZiZhiQu: Autonomous Regions at the Times Museum in Guangzhou can perhaps be seen to develop this model as it applies to the cultural self-formation of individuals and groups, placing that development in contrast to a globalised institutionalisation of culture. Autonomy, then, moves across all scales in its realisation. ZiZhiQu presents expressions of autonomy at the level of the personal via the body, as well as the extension of personal autonomy into ideology and geography. In the process this show covers imaginary and real sites of the development and expression of this individual and communal state of being. This show’s tread is necessarily light, as the subject of autonomy quickly enters fraught territory in relation to specific realisations of the autonomous body in society, or its geographical presence.
Taking an example at the extensive end of the scale, China maintains its own series of Autonomous Regions (Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner-Mongolia, Hong Kong, and Macau) that represent, in certain respects, buffer zones, where a balance is maintained between the Mainland system and systems influenced by the local populations or those from neighbouring countries. These particular areas become the actively contested areas of this balance. In ZiZhiQu, the most explicit address of the politics of these local situations is the group Claire Fontaine’s Autonomous Regions of the People’s Republic of China (burnt/unburnt) (2013), which depict the titular areas formed on a wall using thousands of matchsticks. Set alight on the opening day of the show, these left behind their burnt remains on the wall and ceiling. This real and symbolic conflagration seems to toy with the issues of autonomy in China, but it is questionable how far that goes beyond its spectacle.
In another expression of aestheticized violence, Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mata Machado’s video O Século (The Century) (2011) presents a view from above of a stretch of road, onto which materials are strewn from off-screen, perhaps from a riot taking place somewhere unseen. The effect is mesmerising and beautiful, yet its meaning in the context of this show is ambiguous.
Of course, some of the strongest methods of art are ambiguity, subterfuge and misdirection, and in ZiZhiQu Hou Hanru focuses on the ways in which artists upset narratives and locations to comment on the nature of autonomy through quixotic interactions of the body with its surroundings, and their creative mimicry of social and governmental systems.
Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, Breathing is Free: 12,756.3–Jack and the Guangzhou Bodhi Leaf, 180km, 2013; Courtesy of the artist & Times Museum.
Kimsooja’s series of videos entitled A Needle Woman (1999–2001) places her own, immobile body amongst the massed crowds that flow around her in various parts of the world, adapting themselves to this static figure that remains the one constant in the frame. Nasan Tur presents a similar proposal of disruption, albeit through his somersaulting through spaces (Somersaulting Man [Istanbul][2001–2004]). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba undertakes the task of jogging through areas, mapping his presence in the spaces. In a new work he creates a line drawing of a Bodhi leaf “growing” from the tributaries of the Pearl River delta (around which Guangzhou is built), via a 180km jog (Breathing is Free: 12,756.3 – Jack and Guangzhou Bodhi Leaf, 180km ).
Autonomy is also reflected in the impromptu evidence of civilisation in Abraham Cruzvillegas video documents of unofficial structures attached to the landscapes of the Mexican barrios, along with the activities that result in them. The remains of bodily activities are evident in Zheng Guogu and the Yangjiang Group’s opening night, communal performance. The Group approached intoxication as part of the process of performing calligraphy on the bodies of the audience who drank with them. This performance again seems somewhat tangential to the subject of autonomy, compared with Zheng Guogu’s other works (which only appear in the catalogue) in which he records his purchase of land to build his own informal (and semi-legal) structures. These structures seem to stand as provocations to their physical and social surroundings.
China’s Guangdong Province (home of the Yangjiang Group and in which the Times Museum is located) has a history of subversive artistic behaviour. All the Chinese artists in ZiZhiQu hail from this area, and all maintain a certain levity in their practices. Yang Jiechang casts himself in the role of the King of Canton (Canton being an archaic name for the city of Guangzhou), fashioning himself as a set of animated dolls; Lin Yilin stages a series of performances rolling along the ground, pushing at the ankles of a group of people standing in front of his prone body, moving the whole group with his revolutions (Golden Bridge , etc.). Cao Fei’s installation develops away from her longstanding concern with the imagination of the self in the virtual community of Second Life, to create a presentation of her videos in a night-time garden presided over by a statue of Deng Xiaoping (in the process her work losing relevance in the context of this show). The group Xijing Men (Chen Shaoxiong from China, Gimhongsok from Korea, and Tsuyoshi Ozawa from Japan) further develop the absurdities of their mythical state of Xijing, with a passport control at the entrance to the Times Museum which all must pass through.
Rigo 23, Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, Mixed media installation, work produced in México in collaboration with local artists, 2009-2012; Courtesy of the artist & Times Museum.
The work most directly concerned with the real-world, political effects of a struggle for autonomy, is Rigo 23’s installation produced in collaboration with Mexican artists and influenced by the culture and politics of the Zapatista movement. Several interconnected rooms containing cloth banners, murals and objects relating to the movement lead to a central space displaying hand-made satellites and a large hanging spacecraft. This has been produced as a vision of “a Zapatista Inter Galactic Space Ship,” and holds stitched portraits of balaclava-clad portraits affixed to wicker baskets, and a tiny representation of a dwelling (including miniature basketball court). Such community-focused works seem to well reflect the Zapatista ethos and its creative fight for its autonomy. As naïve as its style might be, this direct expression of a community in the process of striving for autonomy lends a strength to Rigo 23’s presentation which is in contrast to many of the other pieces in ZiZhiQu whose methods and aims can seem overly self-absorbed.
Despite this criticism of the exhibition itself, the catalogue for ZiZhiQu’s is excellent and provides some strong ideas and research around the subject. Ou Ning addresses anarchism as an ideology of autonomy, with its application in the context of the current Occupy movement; Wang Hui provides an extensive critique of regionalism in the Chinese context; and Chen Tong (of the Libreria Borges – an important alternative arts organisation in Guangzhou) provides a condensed account of autonomy in the cultural context of the Guangzhou/Pearl River Delta region; and Hou Hanru’s own introductory essay frames the concept of autonomy better than the works serve as examples of it.
(Image on top: Sriwhana Spong, Beach Study, 2012, 7′30″ 16mm transferred to HD; Courtesy of the artist & Times Museum.)