Two weeks ago I reviewed Wang Du’s aircraft carrier, sitting in Tang Contemporary’s main spaces, and this week I am returning the same gallery but moving my attention to the group show running alongside: the group show of Irrelevant Commission, on the occasion of their second Beijing show.
I was lucky to catch the first appearance of Irrelevant Commission in their self-organised show ‘We Are Irrelevant Commission’ (curated by Gu Jing) at the Miao Pu Art District, but I remember at the time being troubled by the meaning of this group. Although they are forthright in their self-presentation as a group, I wondered if their chosen name was perhaps an indication of the value (or lack of value) they place on the idea of a group. Their major claim to collectivity was that they all graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou within a year or two of each other (from 2006–2008). In terms of their work, there was apparently little to connect them in terms of either style, content, or theory. So this could perhaps be classed as a institutional grouping, but beyond that this first group show held no particular stylistic cohesion, no clearly expressed curatorial framework, and—although individually there were some nice pieces—there was not enough to really sink one’s critical teeth into and pull together for a review (speaking for myself).
The most interesting feature of their work in this show, and the only other thing that might have unified them as a group, was some rather mischievous performances, which they called ‘walking projects.’ These included the group attending an opening with ping pong balls stuck in their mouths, intervening in the proceedings but prevented from communicating in anything other than grunts; and another where they boxed themselves in with metal crash barriers and proceeded to tour the 798 Art District by picking them up and carrying them along as if protecting themselves from the environment. They describe this as a way to make 'possibilities of excess sensitization of public behavior [sic]' which I take to mean some kind of Brechtian intervention in the everyday environment. But in the group show these were downplayed to a single small monitor in one corner.
So how have things evolved with the current show at Tang Contemporary? Several structural changes are evident. Most obviously, the venue represents a major step up and subsequently the new context adds consequence to the situations the group enacts. In concrete terms, this show is far more organised in its presentation as a series of connected projects. Specifically, the artists have extended the questioning of daily life that was seen in the performances into a series of collaborations with their parents.
The upstairs space is devoted to the more obvious manifestation of this, with Nothing to do with Door, in which the artists replaced a door in their family homes with one that they made in collaboration with their parents. The doors are arrayed in the space, showing off the parents’ and artists’ various skills in woodwork, carving, patchwork, the artistic reuse of materials, and the repurposing of the structure of the door itself. Videos and photography document interviews with the family members and give the process a serious and organised air.
Downstairs, in Something to do with Family, each artist has created a new artwork that directly relates to their parents' daily work, again in collaboration with them. The pieces range from Gao Fei’s serpentine, double-action wood plane, Guo Lijun’s transplanted garden, Niu Ke’s loom from which Li Liangyong’s rainbow of threads flies out. Ye Nan takes various household pots and kettles, and fits them with bulbs to create a fantastic set of hanging lights; while Chen Zhiyuan worked with his bricklayer father to create a replica of an ancient Chinese cooking vessel called a ding (鼎).
As with the first group show, these works in themselves are disparate, but the theme of working with the family is now consistently present. But returning to my opening questions about collectivity, what does this mean for them as a group? And are my issues relevant? Paraphrasing from a document they sent to me outlining this show at Tang, they explain that the two projects presented put them directly under the gaze of their parents and their understanding and appreciation (or lack thereof) of what an artist actually does. It was from this source that the title of the show 'Why do we do useless things?' comes–a possibly eternal refrain of incomprehension from any artist’s parents. This show represents their attempts to come to terms with this lack of understanding and advocate creative intra-family communication.
As such, this is not a bad idea and starting point, touching on artwork that partakes of relational aesthetics. As with the first show, there are some nice pieces. Indeed, the individual works downstairs seeming much stronger than those seen before, perhaps because of the coherent theme represents something the artists can really react effectively to. On the negative side, however, it is also these themes that hold the show back somewhat, and the final outcomes (especially the doors) seem a bit pedestrian in their aspirations to community services.
(All Images: Irrelevant Commission, Installation shot, 2012; Courtesy of the artists and Tang Contemporary)