Although at first glance an example of the stopgap shows thrown up during Beijing’s slow season of Christmas through Chinese New Year, Pace Beijing has laid on a group show with grander aspirations. Beijing Voices: Together or Isolated addresses recent questions about the development of gallery shows in Beijing and the role of curators in general, but cuts the rug from under its own feet with confused presentation.
"Beijing Voices" presents a selection of new works by 10 Chinese artists currently living and working in Beijing. The show includes established artists such as Song Dong and Wang Jin, as well as recent graduates like Yuan Yuan, with sensitively installed works of painting, installation and video scattered throughout the larger of Pace’s spaces.
According to the introductory text (prominently displayed at the entrance and the only available background information for the show), the over-arching premise is that “…an explicit curated theme will be intentionally eliminated. Works will be juxtaposed and presented in a particular manner that aims to highlight the works and enables the audience to reflect on the art specifically without being too concerned with the exhibition’s theme”: an interesting—if slightly startling—approach. "Beijing Voices" explicitly draws on the example of Beijing’s Taikang Space and their "51m2" initiative (two of the artists in the current show, Liang Yuanwei and Su Wenxiang, having shown there). Over the past two years "51m2" has presented a series of un-curated solo shows focussing on new works by artists that they describe as “an exploration outside of the exhibition system.”
Taikang Spaces’ efforts deserve attention in their own right, but right now our attention is on Pace’s response. Although the works in "Beijing Voice" benefit from a generous breathing space afforded them, little distinguishes this show in the way that the introductory text suggests. The one aspect of this show that takes it beyond what one might consider a perfectly adequate group exhibition, is the inclusion of a series of small mirrors around the space. However, this uncredited addition seems half-hearted at best.
Returning to the text for insight, the final paragraph broadens its scope to touch on the trope of the impatience and anxiety of contemporary Chinese society. The nameless writer suggests that this “confuses various institutions and organizations,” apparently the result being that commercial galleries “curate academic exhibitions” (I cannot help but see this as a reflection of Pace Beijing itself, given its recent foray into pseudo-survey shows with "Great Performances" in 2010).
The text ends with a quote from Leng Lin, accurately described as a curator but perhaps disingenuously omitting the fact that he is also president of Pace Beijing itself. As such, he undoubtedly has a strong hand in any presentation by the Gallery (curated or not), so his parting shot is telling: “Galleries are also getting lost in the rapidly changing society, evolving from profit-driven institutions into a kind of animal greedy for culture.” Exactly what that means in this context—and his position with regard to its value—is left open to speculation.
Where pre-existing structures, such as curation, are “discussed” in the way this show proposes, the context becomes critical. The works, the installation and the texts all contribute to the understanding, justification and value of the show. To deny a curatorial hand becomes problematic as the text itself acts much like a curator in absentia.
Indeed, in the contemporary gallery context I feel the curator is a difficult entity to deny. The curator, for better or worse, adds a certain level of responsibility and veneer of respectability: in the former case potentially shielding the art from the bare machinations of the gallery system; and in the latter, transcending the mundane role of the gallery as showroom. With its explicit elimination of the curator, "Beijing Voices" loses these benefits, and by belatedly bringing Leng Lin back into the equation, the text seems to take a position on the fence. Unwilling or unable to completely expunge the figure of the curator for the value it brings, and thus not fully able to address the significance of the curators’ lack, the works and text are left with an ambiguous status. The relationship between the two manages to leave the show simultaneously affirming and denying its own premise of an anti-curatorial program.
If it is time to move away from curation, or at least posit alternatives, I must ask what alternative does this show provide? If this is a reaction to over-curated shows (has this ever been a problem in Beijing?) this show provides no solutions or new possibilities. I would even argue Beijing Voices starts from a flawed premise – a search for solutions away from curation is the wrong direction to go: as much as over-curation can be stifling to works, I believe what we really need in Beijing is curation which is more informed, rigorous and self-aware.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Pace Beijing and the artists.)