Li Zhenhua began our conversation with a gentle correction: he had three exhibitions opening in one month, not three exhibitions opening over as many months. I was reminded of these words as Li’s disembodied voice greeted me at Chronus Art Center in Shanghai last week during the opening of a satellite exhibition for “Pandamonium: Media Art from Shanghai,” an exhibition co-curated with David Elliott in Berlin. Unable to attend the show’s simultaneous openings in Berlin and Shanghai, Li introduced “Pandamonium” from a large screen suspended above gallery goers' clinking glasses and murmurs of conversation. For the moment, it could be said that the sun rarely sets on Li Zhenhua’s curatorial empire, but where it does it is illuminated by his presence on an electronic screen.
Overall, it has been a busy year for Li. In July 2013, Li published his first volume of collected essays, Text, through Gold Wall Press, and, in the first two quarters of 2014, has contributed to four major contemporary art programs across Europe and Asia. These programs began with the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards Fifteenth Anniversary show at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art on April 26, and will conclude on July 3 in London with the opening of “Digital Revolution,” a slate of digital arts events and exhibitions at the Barbican Center for which Li served on the international advisory panel. In between, “Pandamonium” has opened in Berlin and the first film program at Art Basel in Hong Kong will launch with evening screenings.
Li perceives his diverse activities as intimately related, stating, “I have a very clear direction. Namely, I don’t curate shows on painting. I focus on video and media-related art, some of it conceptual, some of it performance-related, but not more than that. It’s actually very simple.”
A cinephile’s curator, the film program at Art Basel in Hong Kong includes as many unexpected delights as tried-and-true crowd favorites. Describing his program as a “humble” one selected from 140 applications and including forty-nine works from forty-one artists, Li hopes his selections will not only afford Hong Kong audiences an opportunity to see works rarely seen in Asia from emerging and established European artists like Bill Balaskas and Polly Borland, but also works created closer to home, like Kwan Sheung Chi’s Doing it with Mrs. Kwan…Pepper Spray (2012). For Li, realizing this program in Hong Kong has allowed him a return of sorts to his youth in Shanghai, where, because of its cinema, “Hong Kong and its culture felt very close, even though it was difficult for mainlanders to access film.” This influence and exposure has framed Li’s now decade-long exploration of filmic and media arts.
In Hong Kong, the single largest number of works shown are from Swiss artist Roman Signer. Varying in length between one and sixty minutes, Signer’s works record performances and kinetic events orchestrated for the camera. These short works revolve around cinematic ideas of suspense, climax and conclusion and are explored through the simple forms in found objects, natural landscape or industrial space. Often wildly entertaining, Signer’s penchant for capturing and animating the preposterous is perfectly attuned to the ebbs and flows of the art fair, but also to illuminating the specific properties of filmic media.
Chim↑Pom, BLACK OF DEATH 2013, 2013; Courtesy of Mujin-To Production, Tokyo
Several works from the Tokyo-based artist collective, Chim↑Pom, have also been selected for the Film Sector. The six-artist collective have proven consummate provocateurs since first collaborating in 2005. They famously presented genetically modified, poison-immune rats of Japan’s streets as taxidermy-cum-installation in 2006; Chim↑Pom’s work has blended a unique mix of guerrilla tactics, pop tendencies and serious political stance. Since 2011, their work has been concerned with the fallout from the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi, and K-I-S-S-I-N-G (2011) records two painted and sexed lightbulbs exploding upon kissing.
Other works capture rich possibilities of cinema and the cinematic image. The poetics of urban space find expression in Christopher Doyle’s lush, romantic homage to the luster of gendered body and space in Tilda (2013), a portrait of the actress Tilda Swindon and the skyline of Shanghai. Chang-Jung Wu turns her attention to Taipei’s nighttime streets, capturing the disorientingly generic in multilane thoroughfares and pulsing techno beats for Lost Taipei (2013). In other works, the rhythms of the city give way to the unfolding of time and movement as in Youki Hirakawa’s misty, luscious black-and-white video, In the Midst of Time (2012), or Sriwhana Spong’s Learning Duets (2012), which pairs the rhythms of crashing surf with the movements of contemporary dance.
Youki Hirakawa, In the mist of time, 2012; Courtesy by the Artist, Allrights reserved
Li observed that audiences now “often see artwork through their electronic eyes,” or as images mediated and disseminated through digital screens. Li hopes that the cinema setting at the Hong Kong Art Center will encourage individuals to “see artwork through their own eyes,” or at least pause and process that which visually dances before their eyes.
Films screenings occur nightly from Thursday, May 15 to Saturday, May 17 at the agnés B. cinema at the Hong Kong Art Center. For screening details, see https://www.artbasel.com/en/Hong-Kong/About-the-Show/Sectors/Film
(Image on top: Kwan Sheung Chi, doing it with Mrs Kwan... making Pepper Spray, 2012; Courtesy of Gallery EXIT and the Artist)