The many forms of site-specificity have a long history and can be the most complex of contexts for art. This idea of a productive connection with a setting, and by implication the users of that setting, is an attractive option for artists trying to boost their degree of “relevance.” However, the public realm outside of galleries is also the critical realm par excellence – works existing in it are forced into competition with all sorts of other, “natural” activities in the spaces, and away from the focus afforded by more sympathetic, privileged spaces.
Often one of the stated aims of the work is to engage with the “everyday.” But the prosaic nature of these situations pricks at an artwork's status, pointing up assumptions that may or may not coalesce with the world into which it is thrust. And, for me, this is when it gets interesting.
The group show Urban Play features eleven artists and artist groups hosted by the Landgent Center, a large retail and office development south of Beijing’s Central Business District. This project, curated by Tang Zehui, has seen the artists on-site for the last few months developing a series of site-specific works in the center’s public spaces.
Just inside one of the buildings in the Center, a figure in red was struggling to get up from the floor, his bag of presents scattered behind him. In a bizarre premonition of the coming trials of Christmas shopping, a life-like ageing Santa reached out to passers-by for help in his predicament. The piece, No Country for Old Men by Xin Yunpeng, seemed to be making a statement about our relationship to other people, perhaps reflecting on the issues surrounding “Good Samaritans” which have come to the fore in Chinese society recently.
Smoke Blow by Wang Yiqiong; Courtesy of the artist.
Outside the entrances to the shopping malls, Wang Yiqiong has placed long boards of absorbent paper, provided for smokers banished from the “smoke-free” interiors. The piece develops as they blow onto the surface, leaving behind the tar smudges from their smoke, which—along with the wide format of the paper—somewhat remind me of traditional Chinese landscapes scrolls. The element of interaction and play, with serious health overtones, and its connection with an existent community works well in this location.
Sound can make the most invasive of works. Its contact with people is less controlled than object-based work, leaving it open to more problems given the multiple environments it impinges upon. Yan Jun’s Floating Clouds was presented over the mall’s PA system, and was made up of the cracking sounds of sunflower seeds being eaten (another version of which I reviewed recently on this site). Here it was presented as a discrete compliment to everyday activities – this strange noise in the background of the visitors’ travels through the malls, aiming to put them slightly off balance. This objective turned out to be the work’s undoing, as I believe one of the shops complained that the sound was too upsetting during the opening. In the end the sound was restricted to just one public area, and when I returned the following day, had apparently been turned off entirely.
Strong Electricity Room by Giancarlo Norese; Courtesy of the artist.
The subtlest of interventions, and the most easily missed, were the changes to two seemingly innocuous doors by Giancarlo Norese. The metal doors to two utility rooms had been adjusted by, in one case, the addition of multiple keyholes, and in the other, by the division of the door into two separately hinged parts, the bottom part being maybe 30cm high. These seemed to allow for new relationships with the spaces to be formed – who or what were these changes for? It was as if this was the slight evidence of the presence of another community to whom these elements were addressed.
On the concourse nearby, several new structures had gone up for the show including the architectural intervention, A Floating Organism by the group CAA Core of Architecture & Art Association. This plastic opaque bubble-like form was suspended above an open dining area, visible from the street. The “organism” was lit from within in cycling colours. During the opening it provided a strange aerial presence above the performers Lian Guodong, Lei Yan, Amy Grubb-Han and Liu Zheng who were moving through the public spaces, interpreting their surroundings through dance. Next to the main road, the pyramidal structures of Beijing Obscura by Andrew Toland, created darkened spaces in which the surroundings were projected down through lenses in their apexes onto the outstretched palm of your hand.
Beijing Obscura by Andrew Toland; Courtesy of the artist.
In their different ways, all the pieces in the show touched on the sometimes-problematic issues of site-specificity: the ephemeral nature of some of the works, the practical difficulties they came up against, and (in some cases) the requirement of the presence of the artist. Together, this set of challenges resulted in a rather random experience of the show.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, nor contrary to the meaning of site-specificity. As I said at the beginning, for me these difficulties are where site-specificity becomes interesting. Works which do not play nicely with the environment, that do not stay in place, that leak into surrounding areas and deliberately perform the limits of their work render failure as productive as success. In particular Yan Jun’s sound intervention and Wang Yiqiong’s smoker’s paper, were for me the most “successful” due to what they revealed about the boundaries and limits of the various physical, institutional and psychological contexts found in these malls.
~ Edward Sanderson, a writer and curator living in Beijing.
(Image at top: No Country for Old Men by Xin Yunpeng; Courtesy of the artist)
All photos by Edward Sanderson and courtesy the artists.