Art’s relationship with branding sees a new incarnation with the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award, produced in collaboration with the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and in this first instance addressing itself to artists from what is termed the “Greater China” region.
The Hugo Boss Asia Art Award creates a new geographical focus for the fashion brand, running in parallel with the original “Hugo Boss Prize” which began in 1996. The seven short-listed artists for this award have already developed strong bodies of work, and one of the strengths of this show is that many of the artists’ presentations are retrospective in nature. Hsu Chia Wei from Taipei, Kwan Sheung Chi from Hong Kong, Li Liao from Shenzhen, and Hu Xiangqian and Li Wei from Beijing all present a selection of work from across their careers. On the other hand, rather than presenting older extant examples of their work in this context, Lee Kit from Hong Kong and BIRDHEAD from Shanghai have created large-scale installations that build on previous works.
The self-referential performances by Hu Xiangqian have become somewhat infamous. For this exhibition he presents a number of pieces, including Sun (2008) in which he attempted to tan himself to take on the aspect of a Black African. In Xiangqian Art Museum (2010) he enacts (without props) all the artworks from this imaginary museum, and in Acting Out Artist (2012), he acts the part of “artist” in various stereotypical ways. In a new performance on the opening night of this exhibition he took questions from the audience, answering them with bizarre and histrionic utterances while another performer sat next to him mirroring his movements and translating his statements into English from Hu’s original Chinese.
Some of the most intelligent work in this exhibition comes from Li Liao. His pieces deeply involve the artist in the realisation of activities that draw on his personal and work life, isolating various aspects of these that then become the work. Li recently became well known for the performance Consumption (2012), in which he took a job making Apple iPads at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, quitting his job once he had earned enough to buy the product he was involved in assembling. The installation in the gallery brings together his work uniform, contract and ID card, as well as the finished iPad bought with his wages.
In Art is Vacuum (2013), Li rather brilliantly embeds the Hugo Boss Award itself into the reality of his life as an artist. In this piece he gave the 50,000 RMB production budget for the Award exhibition to his girlfriend’s father to ameliorate the father’s unhappiness at having an artist for a future son-in-law.
Li Liao, Consumption, 2012, Performance, uniform, identity card, the labor contract, iPad mini, Variable dimensions; Courtesy of The Rockbund Art Museum.
Kwan Sheung Chi’s works defer political commentary by embedding it in objects and performances that divert attention onto more mundane matters, but this misdirection of the pieces can sometimes work against any larger point they may try to make. In two short videos, Doing it with Chi… Making an Exit Bag (2009) and Doing it with Mrs Kwan… Making Pepper Spray (2012) the eponymous Chi (the artist) and Mrs Kwan deadpan to the camera their respective projects, seemingly oblivious to their violent nature. On one side of the room a stack of white paper stands against the wall. In front of the stack the word “Free” is painted on the floor. The dimensions of each sheet of paper apparently refer to the date of the Tian’anmen Incident in Beijing – a subject impossible to reference directly here on Mainland China – yet the question is what is the proposed effect of this piece in this place?
Li Wei’s works undertake a similar attempt at critique but lack the emotional restraint of the other artists’ works and make overt references to the body in their forms and materials. As the first work visible to the audience on entering the ticket hall of the Museum, Plan: 2’55” sets up what seems to be the scene of a multiple murder, with body outlines traced on the floor in yellow tape. In this exhibition Li Wei has an advantage in that her works intersperse the other galleries, creating interruptions in the other artists' presentations. In the double-height space of the 4th and 5th floors, a life-like figure in hospital pyjamas, hangs by his fingers from the mezzanine floor. The title, Help (2013), suggests that this person is in a desperate situation within this institutional setting and this perhaps reflects the artist’s ambivalence to her own role here. In another piece by Li, a dining table has the cutlery, crockery, and glassware all shifted such that each item balances precariously over the edge of the table. Its title, I’m Calm, belies the psychological pressure generated by these items’ proximity to disaster.
In a way Lee Kit’s installation This is it (2013), that takes over the whole of the top floor café area, also relates to Li Wei’s absent victims, but in a far more subtle staging where the absent body is that of the artist himself. By rearranging or modifying the existing furniture and structures, Lee creates taut and deliberate interventions into the spaces. The seat cushions lose their comforting role through being stacked or moved into inaccessible areas; small patches of paint are applied to the walls; photos and magazine adverts are fixed onto surfaces. There is a feeling that the placement of every element in the space has been carefully considered. This atmosphere creates an uncomfortable environment for the visitor, particularly as this area retains its use as the café’s seating area.
BIRDHEAD, Welcome to BIRDHEAD World Again 2013—Shanghai, 2013, Installation, Variable dimensions; Courtesy of The Rockbund Art Museum.
The artist group BIRDHEAD is comprised of Song Tao and Ji Weiyu, two Shanghai-based artists whose work veers between casual black and white photographs of their everyday lives, and the formal arrangements and settings that they create for their presentation. Here the walls of a long corridor-like space are covered in gold-coloured silk, typically seen as the framing for scroll paintings. On one side, an extensive collection of their photographs is applied directly to the wall, creating a large block of randomly arranged images. On the other side, a selection of landscape images printed to a consistent size is applied. On the far end of each of these walls the artists have brushed Chinese characters that serve as the title of the installation: “Welcome to the World of BIRDHEAD Again.” At the end of the corridor a velvet rope isolates the closing wall, on which a collaged photograph within a classical frame is hung. As with many of BIRDHEAD’s presentations the intention seems to be to contrast the photographic images with their presentation, but the results seem too simplistic and lack depth of meaning.
Finally, the works of Hsu Chia Wei take on cinematic form, documenting and dramatizing the artist’s investigations into the myths and beliefs surrounding a Taiwanese frog deity known as Marshall Tie Jia (2012–2013) who is believed to hold sway over a small island that the artist wished to film on. The process of gaining permission from this deity and the guidance given by it to the artist are recorded in the installation. A feature of the artist’s work seems to be the presentation of a deep and complex set of realities and stories, which intersect through the various elements we see in the gallery. A video shows a view of the small island, on which cameras and lighting are set up to film an old man performing traditional Min Opera while playing Chinese dominoes. However, rather than situating the singer in the actual landscape, he is filmed against a green-screen, suggesting that this filming taking place within the film will create another transposition of setting. This layering of the viewpoints reflects a quality of depth in the experience of this artist’s work.
The relationship between the international fashion brand of Hugo Boss and the Rockbund Art Museum that this exhibition has been born out of, seems to have successfully sourced a set of artists who deserve greater international attention, and has also set up a productive environment for them to work, allowing for a set of interesting showcases of their practices.
(Image on top: Hu Xiangqian, performance; Courtesy of The Rockbund Art Museum.)