For most of us, the artists working in China have only been accessible across the internet, magazines, or other media. Fortunately, there’s been a subtle wave of exhibitions featuring Chinese art in Chicago this year, the most notable being the sculpture in Millennium Park and the large survey at the Chicago Cultural Center “The Big World: Recent Art from China.” Joining these exhibitions is the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s (MoCP) survey of Shanghai artists, “Reversed Images: Representations of Shanghai and Its Contemporary Material Culture.”
Shanghai has grown into a city of approximately 18 million people, among one of the largest cities in the world. If the construction boom in the U.S. was noticeable, in China and Shanghai it has been totally transforming, as neighborhoods are swallowed by massive high-rise developments. The overwhelming urban nature of Shanghai is addressed by almost all the artists in some way.
I’m most likely not going to get to China anytime soon (unfortunately), but I am extremely curious to know what it is like to be an artist in a country that is Communist, holds the most U.S. debt, is the most populous in the world, and the fastest growing economy. The most interesting pieces in the exhibition were the ones in which the artists both addressed Shanghai as a city but went beyond its sheer urban-ness. Notable in this sense was the collaborative, five-channel video installation 40+4: Art is not enough! Not Enough! The Making of the Arts in Shanghai ’80-2008. The interviewers asked forty questions to forty artists about artmaking issues, conducted over a twenty-year span. These questions ranged from general practice questions (“Have you ever been doubtful of you being an artist?”), to questions more specific to China, like the relationship between art and politics or art and morality. The editing was made obvious through fast cuts between responses, indicating that a certain view was being shown but the conversation was still very engaging. Hearing forty artists ruminate on the last twenty years of practice in China was fascinating and revealed diverse opinions and artistic approaches.
Made on the literal other side of the world, disappointingly some of the work fell into familiar artistic devices. Olivo Barbieri’s Shanghai consists of multiple color images of a highway overpass. I was immediately reminded of any number of highway overpass images, from the images of the famous East Los Angeles freeway interchange, to an image of a Chicago’s freeway shown last year in the Chicago Cultural Center exhibition “Made in Chicago.” Barbieri’s work is different in that the freeways have blue accent lights, but otherwise it blends into a host of freeway images. Liu Gang’s Paper Dream series presents actual advertisements put up around construction sites to promote the new housing units. These have momentary interest as they are from Shanghai yet closely resemble the advertisements of the U.S., but don’t go much deeper.
Zhang Qing, 603 Football Field, 2006, 13 digital prints, Courtesy Shanghart, Shanghai
A standout in the exhibition was Zhang Qing’s 603 Football Field, a video installation presented with photographic c-prints of a soccer game (“football” to the rest of the world) held in a tiny Shanghai apartment. Two teams of grown men plus one referee, actively negotiate a bed, desk, bookshelves, in an attempt to score a goal in the kitchen at one end or in the bathroom at the other. The game is complete with uniforms, the ref, and a midfield line. Initially this is hilarious, as the players boot the ball around the apartment, damaging things and knocking them over. Humor allows anyone anywhere access to the piece, but there’s a deeper level beyond laughter. The video monitors are installed like surveillance cameras, monitoring a private space. The small space is funny at first, but it implies the loss of Shanghai’s green spaces, where the game should be properly played. If these men are forced to play in an apartment, where do Shanghai’s children play? Qing uses humor as an access to address more serious points.
The MoCP continues to pursue ambitious exhibitions, this time bringing Shanghai to Chicago. Heavily focused on Shanghai as a physical city, “Reversed Images” presents a variety of artistic practices, some of which work better than others. The most interesting take a critical approach that doesn’t necessarily sacrifice aesthetics.