In some ways there’s really not a lot to say about this show. The elements of the show are seemingly simple, based around a short video loop showing a woman in a hospital bed speaking the words “Good Luck,” and the execution of the show is restrained, with just some medical notes, a contract and a wall text.
The woman in the bed is in fact dying. For the exhibition the artists paid this woman’s family 2000RMB (US$314) to purchase her announcement of the phrase “Good Luck” (or, more literally, “wish you success”). The handwritten contract is a record of this transaction, the woman’s case history notes in mental hospital clipboards record her own state of health, and the wall text provides the context: “On July 5th, 2012, members of guest paid Sheng Mingfeng, a patient on her deathbed at a hospital in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, to say the phrase ‘Good Luck.”’
As with the best conceptual work, this show becomes most powerful though contemplating the ramifications of this act on the part of the artists. The effects of this presentation—while uncomfortable—deserve attention, in that we, the audience, should be aware of our own assumptions regarding the subject matter. Good Luck also deserves attention because this piece threatens to slip into a particular way of thinking by artists in general, an aloofness from the sources and consequences of their work that can be problematic at best, and sociopathic at worst.
The artist group called Guest has only been in existence for a short time, originally forming for a show earlier this year at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. The participants vary, but this current show at Hemuse Gallery is made up of the hard core of the group: Xu Qu (whose solo show at the same gallery I reviewed last year), and Zhao Yao (whose solo show at Beijing Commune I reviewed last month) and Lu Pingyuan.
The presentation at Hemuse is not spectacular, nor didactic nor opinionated, so I believe Guest’s intentions with Good Luck are to be sensitive and respectful, within the parameters of their own art practice. But nevertheless the obvious question is: is this exploitation? And I suppose the obvious answer would be: only in so far as any transaction is (by definition) exploitative (with an attempt to balance the degrees of exploitation in the best situations). In this case, it is a fact that Guest used the situation of Sheng Mingfeng for their own purposes, partly shifting the focus away from her onto a conceptual reading of the situation.
But, to take that a step further, the audience must also negotiate their own use of the representation of Sheng Mingfeng within the gallery space. My own feeling about that negotiation (as a member of the audience, and hence complicit with the activity of the artists), is that it is important to remember this is a real person: when I visited the show, I was told that Sheng was still alive as of that moment (something a regular visitor probably wouldn’t be told). I am almost left at a loss for what to say about the art here; I was brought up short. This may seem paradoxical, but I think this is what makes a good piece of art: it prevents you from slipping into unthought responses, and forces you to confront your assumptions about the subject matter.
That said, death is a subject that seems impossible to treat dispassionately, so I feel it becomes inconceivable to be totally objective about this piece; the negotiation of respect for the dying can be seen to trump all other aspects of the work. I can say for sure that I don’t want to treat Sheng Mingfeng as just part of some conceptual project. I believe artists have a certain leeway to deal with subjects—like death—in ways that question societal norms. Although I do not know the artists personally (though I have met Xu Qu and he seemed nice enough) and am not necessarily ascribing these tendencies to them, a work like Good Luck feels sociopathological in that, on one level, it works to divorce the reality of a dying person from the mediated experience. A sociopath is said to be unable to empathise with another human being, and this piece seems to force us to confront our feelings (or lack of them) in front of this very real matter of life and death.
Major questions arise from the sparse elements of the show. I would like to say they are profound questions, but I still have doubts over whether they deserve such a description. In the end, I believe that to raise such questions is a process that artists should undertake, and as uncomfortable as this may be, this very discomfort proves the artists are doing something that is in itself worthwhile of attention.
(All Images: Good Luck, installation shot; Courtesy of Hemuse Gallery and the artists / photograph by Meng Wei)