For the 12th iteration of the Shanghai Biennale the Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina mines the contradictions and conflicts in our age in an attempt to provide a complex reflection of it. Titled ‘Proregress’, a word construction borrowed from the poet E.E. Cummings and meant to disturb enlightenment assumptions of linear progress, the exhibition examines a range of concerns and points of friction — from the past’s inflection in the present to the struggle between the natural and industrial worlds, to the role of culture in today’s society. In the sprawling show that results, featuring works by 67 artists from over 26 countries, the push and pull embedded in its premise does not deliver the multilayered complexity hoped for. While selected works make an impression, the overall emotional resonance of “Proregress” feels muted, and charged with embellishing its vast sub-themes the show comes off as both too specific and too diffuse.
TEXT: Maya Kramer
IMAGES: Courtesy of Shanghai Biennale
The Biennale opens with an uneven selection of works in the cavernous main entrance atrium. Fernando Sanchez Castillo’s Swing, commissioned specifically for ‘Proregress’ plays with the monument as form and content. An 18th century attired male figure is cast in bronze and bent 90 degrees at the knees such that his thrust turns horizontal and a swing hangs from his breast which visitors are free to use. While momentarily enjoyable the critique of the enlightenment it implies, though warranted, in this format feels flippant. Yuken Teruya’s work My Father’s Favorite Game (Flipping Earth and Sky), (2018) is more engaging. Highlighting how sports competitions are often an outgrowth of conflict situations, he tackles the fraught history of the US’s military presence in Okinawa (his hometown) by inventing a game where two teams flip cars using human strength, with the match shown through video documentation alongside the overturned cars. Voluspa Jarpa’s dramatic installation where reproductions of declassified documents detailing foreign interventions in Latin America hang in a cascade over 20 meters high initially seems powerful. Yet, the artist mixes this with the language of minimalism, with some documents appearing to emerge from a stack of Judd-esque ‘specific objects’ on the wall. The literalness of this move truncates the potential in the piece.
Further back on the first floor is a corridor where videos are screened, interspersed with spaces featuring paintings, photographs, and installations. The concentration of viewing rooms is cumbersome, but among the works, Yasumasa Morimura’s video Egó Sympósion, is arresting. The piece continues the artist’s longstanding practice of subverting the authority of the masterpiece, of power relations, celebrity and identity by painstakingly dressing up as Western art icons, and photographing these restagings. It documents his process and meditates more explicitly on the deconstruction of power he enacts through his transformations, and enriches an understanding of his practice. The strength of the Moriumura however, is symptomatic of another issue in this Biennale where works by more established artists, from Michael Rakowitz, to Simon Starling, to Samson Young to Francis Alÿs, often eclipse the production of lesser known artists. It is disappointing that a sense of discovery, a key ingredient of any show and particularly a Biennale, is missing.
On the second floor, Christina Luca’s Clockwise creates a momentary sense of wonder by placing 360 clock hands in a line at eye level in a white oblong room. Subtly ticking away each one is set four degrees later than its predecessor. That Leandro Katz’s vertical scrolls featuring moon phases and text are placed across from her piece, underscores the temporal theme too clearly. With time established as a variable, a number of subsequent works on that level confront a range of past conflicts and their repercussions in the present. While many of these pieces are poignant individually, they are overwhelming in rapid succession. From Rackowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (Recovered, Missing, Stolen Series), a profound exploration of the looting of Iraqi culture that took place during the US invasion; to Arin Rungjiang’s work Shooting an Elephant and The Leader exploring human trafficking, exploitation and colonialism; to Clemencia Echeverri’s immersive video River of Assault, showing in a fierce but poetic way Columbian rivers being ravaged by dam building; to Forensic Architectures’ Ayotzinapa Project a painful online map and resource detailing the 2014 kidnapping and execution of Ayotzinapa protestors by Mexican security forces; these are just selected works that probe a range of human and ecological traumas. Unfortunately, the requisite response after such a deluge is numbness.
Works on the third floor thankfully lighten a bit, while still feeling consequential, as they explore the structures, supports, and assumptions about culture. Andrea Frazer’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics, shows the political contributions of museum board members in the US and the connection between money, power, values, and aesthetics. Though not a revelatory for her oeuvre, it is one of the more significant Institutional Critique work I have seen in Shanghai. In a milieu that blindly revers museums such as MoMA or the Guggenheim, it may help inspire more nuanced assessments. Samson Young’s video documenting an orchestra playing, where he mutes the music and instead enhances the peripheral sounds of breathing, friction of fingers to strings and body movements of the players, is utterly enthralling. Another work, Alicia Mihai Gazcue, An Anthology, seems to be a conceptual spoof on the art world and its misogyny and the recent bittersweet trend of recognizing female genius artist’s right before they die. Ana Tiscornia and Liliana Porter, perhaps or perhaps not, collaborated to create works attributed to a likely fictional Mihai Gazcue in the form of delicate conceptual looking drawings, a grainy black and white video echoes a Marina Abramovic performance, and a wall text that seems to give away the punchline. The clever play makes a cutting statement while remaining delightful.
Overall, ‘Proregress’ does highlight significant current challenges, and traces their echoes down through history– but its vast scope diminishes the overall effect. During the exhibition’s press preview, when Medina outlined the Biennale’s subtopics it struck me that each one merited its own distinct exhibition. In the end, ‘Proregress’ tries to go deep everywhere and while it doesn’t entirely stall, it ends up not going very far.
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.