Curated group shows reveal the hand of the curator in a public display of the thinking and working process: in some cases the curator may take a back seat; in others, be extremely visible. Curator Carol Yinghua Lu has consistently taken the latter approach, and her group show You Are Not a Gadget at Pékin Fine Arts, serves as a point at which to analyze the results.
Building on the work of practitioners such as writer and curator Jens Hoffmann and art historian Hans Belting, Lu has developed a curatorial practice whereby she often plays a significant role in the creation and presentation of her shows, through critical, theoretical and actual involvement. She has built up a reputation for investigating the nature of curation as a medium, taking a creative and broad-spectrum approach to the activity, often bringing her personal narratives into the proceedings.
The title of the current presentation is taken from Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, in which the author warns against the growing dependence on online communities as formative of social and intellectual structures. Lanier views online communities as developing a “hive mind” approach to knowledge, favouring the “wisdom of crowds” (popularized by James Surowiecki) as the be-all and end-all of knowledge formation. He has interpreted the adoption of online forms of group interaction and knowledge organization (most notably wikipedia) as potentially leading to a “leaching of empathy and humanity.” In her show, Carol Yinghua Lu channels this warning through the presentation of a group of Chinese artists who deal with the engagements between people and information facilitated by our online environments, and their “real world” effects and consequences.
For me, the least interesting pieces in this show were those that worked through a rather simplistic, formal presentation of online states in alternative media, playing with the nature and values associated with the original material in a new context, through manipulation, extension and subversion.
For example, Chen Shaoxiong’s paintings of “monuments and power structures of the contemporary art world,” layered with texts culled from the internet about those same structures, seemed too uncritical of their raw material, and could be seen as examples of the “mash-up” culture that Jaron Lanier critiques. Similarly, the hanging banners by Zhang Hui and Dan’er reproducing spam adverts on their fabric were overly didactic and heavy-handed, adding little through their subject matter or presentation.
On the other hand, works such as Lu Zhengyuan’s The Moon in my Room lightened the mood and successfully traversed the distance between form and meaning within this exhibition context. This photograph was taken in the artist’s room where the only light source was a found image of the moon, culled from Google, projecting its light from the artist’s monitor out into the real world.
Yan Xing’s Daddy Project, documenting his performance at the show’s opening, also really succeeded here. A small video monitor shows the artist standing with his back to the camera narrating his experience of a blog posting he had made about his father. Here the circumstances and results of Yan Xing’s initial act of online exposure are retold, and subsequently presented over and over again within the gallery context after the protagonist has left, much like the post which—once published—can never totally be removed. The camera and microphone remain in the gallery, forlornly marking out the space of revelation, after the fact and beyond retrieval by the confessor.
In her extended text, Carol Yinghua Lu presents a scenario full of promise for the show. This text is a central player in the exhibition, but unfortunately it was not available in the gallery when I visited, thus removing a key aspect of our understanding. Its act of drawing the reader in through the personal nature of the subjects (the curator’s regular morning micro-blogging routine; her and her partner’s experiences at the hands of online artworld trolls) sets up a parallel activity to the works on show. It really had to be present in some way alongside the works for the full meaning of the show to be realised.
As an aside, we’re fortunate to be able to compare You Are Not a Gadget with Yu Bogong’s solo show at White Space Gallery (January 9th – March 27th, 2011), also curated by Carol Yinghua Lu (reviewed below). In the latter show the curating is well developed and clearly realized: Lu chooses to get physically involved in the artist’s process, inserting herself into the installation as participant and documenter of a series of mandala-creating workshops taught by the artist. Justified as a means of coming to grips with the artist’s work, this activity and its presentation become an important act around which the installation develops. Her act allows the viewer to empathise with the curator’s process and travel with her into the mind of the artist.
Both shows provide good case studies of Lu’s working technique and the potential of the contemporary curator in the exhibition context. Although I feel You Are Not a Gadget is unable to fully reach its potential, some strong works and a powerful curatorial direction make for an engaging show.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Pekin Fine Art and the artists.)