Why Not Ask Again, the title of this year’s eleventh Shanghai Biennale held at the Power Station of Art is an apt name for this exploratory and open-ended exhibition. Showcasing ninety two artworks made by forty individual or artist groups from across the globe, this Biennale avoids many of the pitfalls that plagued the last two iterations of this show, Social Factory (2014) and Re-Activation (2012). Primarily curated by the New Dehli based art group Raqs Media Collective, comprised of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, the team also engaged a curatorial ‘collegiate’ to help them develop their vision leading to a fresh and engaging, if not entirely convincing show.
TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGES: Courtesy of Shanghai Biennale 2016
For Raqs, grappling with the purpose of Biennale’s themselves becomes one of the organizing principals for the exhibition. To stage shows, typically curators choose a central theme and then assemble artworks relating to the topic. Yet this methodology can limit the audience experience of the work, with multiple readings of pieces potentially curtailed by the curatorial agenda. To avoid such an outcome, Raqs attempts to rewrite the biennale code as it were and posits the curatorial concept as an infinitely occurring question, Why Not Ask Again? Thus the theme itself becomes iterative, a content engendering machine that spins off multiple narratives which orbit, connect, clash or elucidate, without necessarily resolving.
One sensed the group’s distinct curatorial approach in the main hall, the entry point to the Power Station of Art. Since the museum’s inception, most artists and curators have failed to convincingly address this cavernous space, but here the curatorial team inverts the problem by essentially filling this void with more voids. At the exhibition entrance are a selection of Peter Pillar’s photographs culled from various newspapers and stock photos, Looking into Holes. These banal grainy black and white images depicting regular people peering into ditches and storm drains are a humorous prelude to an exhibition that celebrates each artist’s work as its own reality, as conjoined yet distinct wormholes. Across from Pillar’s piece, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu physically charged, So Far, also has the void at its center. Replicating Otto von Guericke’s 1654 demonstration of the strength of vacuums, forklifts attempt to pull apart three large ceramic vessels which have had the air pumped out of them. The vacuums are formidable match for the machines and the work exudes the explosive potential energy that characterizes Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s oeuvre.
Continuing through the exhibition it becomes clear that there are more than merely questions at the heart of this show, and Raqs drew on two narratives in particular to shape their curatorial vision: Ritwik Ghatak’s film Reason, Debate and a Story, and Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem. While the 1970’s Bengali film seems markedly different than the 2006 Chinese science fiction trilogy, both pieces contemplate the human condition under chaotic circumstances with a particular mix of existential urgency , distance and distortion.The tenor of these narratives echo throughout the low lit exhibition halls, and the mysteries of outer space, juxtapositions of past and present, reality and fiction come into focus in the conversations between the works on view.
Marjolijn Dijkman’s Lunar Station is the first piece to bring the cosmos into play. A pendulum strung from high above makes hypnotic patterns in a circle of white sand while a video relates various people: philosophers, scientists and amateurs, reflecting on the moon. Christian Thomson’s dreamlike self portraits Rocks on your Belly, Conjure by Moon also evoke the cosmos, albeit an inner one, and in his series Museum of Others he undermines the authority of notable British colonial figures by donning their visages as masks.
Masks are similarly deployed to render the familiar strange in Yang Zhenzhong’s video piece Disguise. Factory employees wear white masks cast from their own face and perform their work as a camera records them in slow motion, and the video is an uncanny, almost Brechtian rumination on the relationship between identity and labor. Sammy Baloji’s photographic series, Kolwezi highlights China’ s growing economic ties with Africa’s and dramatizes the disconnect between between reality and fantasy. The artist photographed Kolwezi’s stark cobalt mines, whose spoils often end up in the People’s Republic, and juxtaposed them with fantastic, printed-in-China landscape posters depicting verdant grass, zebras and peach blossoms. These surreal images were found adorning the homes and businesses in Kolwezi and their absurdity dramatizes the reality of the mine landscape.
Arriving at the second floor of the exhibition, one encounters the biggest blight of the Biennale, The Great Chain of Being— Planet Trilogy by MouSen+MSG. A massive moon-themed theatrical work, in theory it references such greats as William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, but in practice its more reminiscent of Disneyland sans the technological finesse. Thankfully in an adjacent room, Thomas Saraceno’s Sonic Cosmic Webs brings the show back on track. Plexiglass boxes encase delicate spiderwebs built on top of one another, which create incredible patterns in space. This microcosmos transports one’s mind to the macrocosmos and beyond to the sublime.
In the far room on the second floor an ensemble of works invokes melancholic landscapes. Patty Chang’s split screen projection, The Wandering Lake shows the artist almost obsessively washing the hull of a landlocked ship and scrubbing the dead body of a sperm whale floating in water. It is a foreboding reflection of the compromised future of water resources and the individual’s lack of power in face of such change. Liu Yujia’s stark video Black Ocean consists of panoramic shots of the vast Gobi desert inhabited less by people and more by industry mining these lands for resources. The steady stream of steam evaporating through smoke stacks and the numbing circular bob of oil pumps become a meditation on humanity’s mindless and predatory relationship to its environment.
Why Not Ask Again did contain blindspots. There was little engagement with more traditional media, i.e painting and sculpture, far too much work overall, and few exceptional individual pieces. Yet as a whole Raq’s refreshed the Biennale model for Shanghai in a meaningful way. Exhibitions in this city often showcase Chinese or established Western artists, and it was invigorating to see the group bypass this dichotomy and assemble a strong show with lesser known voices from across the globe. If Biennale’s are meant to reflect the tenor of the times and posit a blueprint for what is is to come, it was fitting that the unnerving results of the US election were announced the day before the opening. The social and political environment of the recent past is becoming undone. As the norms we have known destabilize it is a good time to look and to ask again.
11th Shanghai Biennale
“Why Not Ask Again? Arguments, Counter-arguments and Stories”
12 Nov 2016 to 12 Mar 2017
Maya Kramer is an artist, an independent art writer and arts project coordinator. She was based in New York City for nine years during which time she worked in the curatorial department of the Guggenheim Museum and for private collectors. In 2010 she moved to Shanghai, and has since exhibited internationally in conjunction with institutions such the Hong Kong Arts Centre (Hong Kong) and the Van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven, Holland) among others. She is the recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, her works have been featured in media such as Fortune Art, Randian and Blouin Art Info, and she has written for The Shanghai Gallery of Art, Artlink, and Bank Gallery. She currently lives and works in Shanghai, China.