It feels like curation has become somewhat undisciplined. “Good” curation, in my experience, is distinguished by a thoughtful and productive presentation and response to the works selected. I realise this plays down the more academic aspects related to working with collections in, say, a museum context. But in the environment in China where there is little institutional support for serious curation (at least of contemporary art), you take what you can get.
However, that rather negative preamble is by way of introducing a show that ultimately restores my faith in the possibilities of curation. I think we are fortunate to see the artist Song Dong put in the position of curator as part of UCCA’s “Curated by…” series, running concurrently with his own solo show next door. His choice to present Ma Qiusha and Wang Shang, with whom he has worked since they were very young, shows the results of a long-term commitment and the opportunity for an extended understanding of their collective work based on this relationship.
As before with Ma Qiusha’s work, I was immediately impressed with the strength of the artist’s video pieces, three examples of which are shown. The subtlest is a tiny video projection just above floor level, thrown against Song Dong’s errant wall panelling which penetrates from his solo show, snaking throughout all the rooms. The image is of a small cat’s tail playfully poking out from a woman’s skirt, flicking around and pulling in and out of the hole with phallic abandon (Pet, 2011).
Her early video work, No.4 Pingyuanli to No.4 Tianqiaobeili, is a particularly affecting piece. The artist stands before the camera recounting her upbringing and development as an artist with respect to her parent’s involvement and the debt she feels to them. The artist’s expression becomes more and more pained as the piece goes on, perhaps displaying the accumulating guilt as she speaks. Finally she cannot talk any longer and removes a razor blade from her mouth that has been sitting on her tongue the whole time.
This piece is perhaps the best known of her works, primarily due to its straightforwardness and shock value, but her latest works prove to be equally affecting and show Ma can move beyond this work, which could have overshadowed her career. For me the strongest and most lyrical work in the show is All of My Sharpness Comes from Your Hardness. The artist’s legs trail out of the back of a vehicle, wearing ice-skates which drag along the ground becoming ever sharper as the vehicle travels between her Grandmother’s home to her childhood home in Beijing.
All these works (as well as the many subtle installations that I don’t have space to discuss here) present an intense set of relationships: with herself, the people around her, and the places she has experienced. It’s rare to see such a comprehensive, consistently direct and revealing view of an artist’s life.
In the adjoining room, Wang Shang’s work is a realisation of the settings and events from a novel he is in the process of writing. This method, of an artist writing about and then constructing his fantasy, can be particularly productive where the vision is complex enough. Wang’s works create a strange environment that doesn't overpower, but poses enough questions about the objects to leave the audience disjointed from reality.
The basic setting sourced from the artist’s novel is that of a laboratory, and the narrative places this as an alien biological testing ground where the Earth’s plants were developed many eons ago. Visual cues are everywhere: the room’s wallpaper includes a design that reflects the reproductive organs of plants; this aspect of growth and reproduction is picked up again in the airtight cases which are arrayed along one side of the room, connected to gas cylinders by clear plastic pipes. Inside the cases (which the artist designates as “breeding tanks”) are what appear to be pieces of jewellery, small metal structures impregnated with coloured gems but which the titles recast as biological growths of some sort. On the back wall a large hexagonal shelving system holds a large number of old cameras, some painted grey, attached to the shelves, which run parallel to the outer edges of the structure, leaving the cameras tilted at various angles. Each shelf lights up in turn in a spiral sequence, from outside to inside, before the whole set lights up.
These elements all seem to add up to an elaborate stage set, or diorama, through which the audience passes as spectators or participants in the story line. However, the static presentation seems to suggest a lack of empathy with the audience, as if the story took place so far removed in time or space that we cannot really relate to it anymore. Indeed in this sense Wang’s setting and rationalisation seems to represent a complete mirror to Ma Qiusha’s approach. Wang takes us out of our lives, disrupting our understanding of the objects on display to give them new significance, but at the same time lacking a personal connection to make it affective for the audience; while Ma’s works bring us up close to the everyday realities of personal relationships and family histories.
It is positive that there is little to formally compare the three artists; each has developed their own vocabulary and the tradition of master passing on skills to their pupils has gone beyond a mentality of rote copying. While Song Dong’s work physically bleeds into the spaces occupied by his protégés, each of their distinctive approaches prevents a muddying of the waters of each set of works.
Presenting such a composite collection of artists and their connections in real terms may be something only an institution like UCCA can support, where the direct impact of a commercial background is muted. Curated by… presents Song Dong’s arrangement as a “framework” (in UCCA Director, Jerome Sans’ words) and as a “backdrop” (Song Dong’s own words) for the works by the other two artists. Song’s role as curator as well as an artist with his own solo show running concurrently, could potentially problematize the status of each participant if the history between them was not a clear feature of the overall show. But this history is successfully placed centrally, building a conceptual structure in which Ma and Wang can continue to build off the support of their teacher.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and the artists.)