Jul 23
Jul 15

by Ben Davis

"The Thirteen: Chinese Video Now," Feb. 26-May 1, 2006, at P.S.1 MoMA, 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101


By now, the word has spread everywhere in the art world: China is the future. Everyone is in a frenzy, with all the major galleries jockeying to get a Chinese artist in the rotation. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insiders say that the order has come from the top down that all departments should reorient themselves to add a focus on Chinese contemporary art.


This certainly represents, in part, an authentic interest in a thriving Chinese scene, fruit of the transformation of a rural and tradition-bound society into an urban and capitalist one, squarely focused on the future. But the indomitable air that Chinese art has right now is obviously driven by blind speculation as well. The current show of Chinese video art at MoMA satellite P.S.1, featuring work by 8gg, Cui Xiuwen, Dong Wensheng, Cao Fei, Hu Jieming, Huang Ziaopeng, Li Songhua, Liang Yue, Lu Chungsheng, Ma Yongfeng, Meng Jin, Xu Tan and Xu Zhen, co-curated by David Thorp and Sun Ning, shows both sides of this uneasy situation.

The phenomenon can be summed up by exploring the title of the exhibition itself, "The Thirteen." On the one hand, it’s clearly meant to evoke a kind of supernatural aura, and, in fact, the show is anchored by two longer videos, both with real mystery to them. The 28-minute Drifting Lantern (2005) by Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970) is the first thing one sees as one enters the darkened galleries, with an entire wall dedicated to its projection. It focuses on a single image: a glowing, pumpkin-shaped orange lantern. Accompanied by a lush soundtrack of erhu, flute and voice, and isolated on a black background, the glowing form bobs forward and backwards, in and out of the screen like a playful spirit.

Occasionally, however, fragments of other images break the blackness, allowing the viewer to become aware that the lantern, in fact, is suspended on a chain, carried by a woman who holds it with a ceremonial steadiness as she advances through streets and plazas. The restless, animated movement of the lantern turns out to be the jerky motion of the camera itself as it follows her path. Moving in and out of the illusion, now isolating the lantern and letting artifice take over, now pulling back to show its context, Cui’s piece is perfect as exploration of the potentials proper to video.

Also granted its own gallery is the 29-minuteThe History of Chemistry (2004) by Lu Chunsheng (b. 1968), located exactly half-way through the exhibition from Floating Lantern(furthering the impression that it serves as a second pillar of the show). Shot in spare black-and-white, History’s wordless, sci-fi infused narrative is seemingly structured around an evolution through different forms of power: We follow a group of sailors (water-born transit) who explore a barren, overgrown wasteland, where they are spooked first by a train (steam-power), seemingly running automatically across deserted tracks, and then by a lawnmower (gas/electric-power), mysteriously driven in circles. At last, they draw near an immense, fortress-like industrial complex -- which, perhaps, represents the future, as suggested by the prophetic final image of the group’s captain standing frozen, hammer raised in the air.

Three pieces by Cao Fei (b. 1978), scattered throughout the exhibition, show a consistent concern for moments in which fantasy collides with humdrum everyday life. In Milkman (2005), Cao captures the pathos of the titular protagonist’s daily routine, seeing him at one point lolling in bed, tormented by the come-ons of a late night sex chat show. Public Space(2002) features a middle-aged man playing the fool in the street, while the crowd-pleasingCosplayers (2004) depicts various young people clad as cartoon heroes and heroines, staging mock battles in the street before finally trudging back to their dreary normal lives. Though somewhat slight, taken together these works outline a coherent vision.

Returning to the show’s name, however: If it is intended to evoke a kind of mystical aura, it also unintentionally indicates that Chinese art is here being thought of numerically, in bulk. As with many efforts at curating video, there is a real problem with cramming too much of it together: Cui’s meditative Lantern is interrupted by the sound of heavy breathing, clacking ping-pong balls and shouting from crowded suites of videos on either side; Lu’s stark, near-silent History is stationed adjacent to Hu Jieming’s clamorous From Architectural Immanence (2005), a 6-minute loop featuring fragmentary blasts of music that supposedly correspond to the shapes of the different types of buildings pictured.

What’s more, if this is supposed to be the future, much of the work has the familiar feeling of the recent past. Take the works by young, ultra-hot Chinese artist Xu Zhen (b. 1977), whose interest in provocation and the body recalls 70s artists like Bruce Nauman and William Wegman. We’ll come back (2002), displayed on a TV set on the floor, focuses on the crotches of two young people using their flies as an ashtray and a purse, respectively, while Shouting (1998) features the artist screaming into a crowd from behind a camera and capturing their reactions. (Xu’s Rainbow, a 1998 video of a naked back being whipped, each cut in the film corresponding to a lashing sound, so that it becomes more scarred even as the actual attacks are edited out, is more interesting). Similarly, the collective 8gg’s manipulated footage of Chinese newscasters, making them look robotic, is a gimmick that’s been worked from many angles already by other artists.

Many more videos have the feeling of concept-first "gestures" familiar from trendy Western art, here often with relation to China’s rapid development: Xu Tan’s Xin Tian Di (2005), showing images of a landmark Communist neighborhood overrun with Starbucks coffee shops and Vidal Sassoon salons, counterpoised to a soundtrack of Communist anthems; Ma Yongfeng’s The Swirl (2002), a static, 15-minute shot of Chinese goldfish being tortured in an industrial washing machine; and Li Songhua’sKeynote Speech (2005), which greets visitors before they enter the galleries with the image of a small Chinese boy reading the bombastic text of a speech on China’s glorious economic future.

The pitfall of a top-down emphasis on China-ness -- akin to the fashionable interest in getting tattoos of random Chinese characters -- is that it comes at the expense of the actual rhythms of artistic singularities. Tellingly, P.S.1 accompanies the show with a text extolling video as perfect for China, because it is "a relatively cheap medium that produces rapid results," a formal proposition that echoes Wallstreet’s notion of the country as haven of cheap goods and get-rich-quick investment.

The classic dangers of speculative frenzy are the overvaluing of mediocre assets, the flourishing of half-baked schemes and the creation of redundancy, as capital indiscriminately builds up "hot" industries. "The Thirteen" shows that, whatever its strengths are, the Chinese art scene is not immune to all this -- though, given the hype, I suppose that this is a progressive lesson in its own right.

BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.

Jun 21

Micro Intervention

Mi You

On a sunny May afternoon, a Chinese artist took a square in Bologna. The intervention with the title Micro Resistance in Bologna took place in Piazza Verdi, right in the heart of much Bologna University activities. From 4p.m. to 7p.m. the artist, Ma Yongfeng (founder, Forget Art collective), and a group of local volunteers used a significant part of the square as their base and worked together on a series of banners. The sun was burning hot. It ended when another planned protest was kicking start, where people gathered in the square around a van with DJs and MCs in it.

This intervention invites different readings, as the intention of the artist was not explicitly expressed in the beginning. The following may provide possible access to it.

>>>Reading from an artistic point of view

The aesthetics question for the artist has always been, how to make an artistic intervention in the public open space, instead of making just another protest? (The latter is itself another challenge, since public spaces are strictly controlled in the artist’s home country.) The artist launched himself into the production of what he envisions as an intervention work without necessarily answering these questions. The production process took a more significant role than the end product, and this artificial stretching of production itself poses a series of questions to the dominant form of a protest in which the artist and the volunteers operate. Firstly, materiality of the banners in the protest came to question. The artists wanted to achieve a “rough” look (quote from conversations with the artist), and gathered cardboards and markers for production – which are of course essential for every protest. The “readiness” and “unworkedness” qualities appreciated in an aesthetics setting aligns, intentionally or unintentionally, with the common practice on the street. Moreover, the very much work-in-process presentation right in the square acquired a different dynamics than the preparation making of a protest normally conceived. The atelier was in the public space, and the process consisting of moments of discussion and inspiration as well frustration and undecideness was entirely to be spotted, and blatantly true. The posters they produced were laid on the ground, and constructed a big cloud of consciousness. The artists, volunteers and the passers-by in the square were engaged in an act, whose scores and lines hid underneath the process of making it. In the duration of the intervention, it was never clear what would become of this production, but this wouldn’t make the artistic process any less valid, for being part of it is already the most important thing for the artist. As if to make this narrative a bit clearer, the artist himself painted a slogan quoting Zizek, “is this a revolt without revolution?” It offered a meta-layer critique of the energy, resources and work accumulated in the protests without channeling them into meanings around the world, and in the immediate surrounding of the square. The artist, by acting and not revolting, thereby embodied this critique. By precisely staging it, acting it, but not really doing it, this reveals the affective quality of politics, it defamiliarises the normalised situation of a demonstration.

The artist’s relation to the volunteers and passers-by is ambiguous. He didn’t engage them confrontationally, for example, he didn’t go around and ask people for their reactions. He rather preferred it in a way as if nothing has happened, or it isn’t clear what has happened. This was indeed how one feels, when going back to the square later. The posters and banners were still lying on the ground. Some passers-by stopped to read them. And the relation was constructed in those moments when nobody knew. Yet exactly this ambiguity offers a moment of ethical trueness in the myriad relations between the artist, active participants and passive participants, in that none of the present parties powers over another, and instead is more or less susceptible to the other. There is even an ethical demand that urges the audience to look at his or her own position in an event of present day politics.

>>>Reading from a political point of view

The name of the performance/intervention is Micro Resistance, as the artist views the space as a ground of micro resistances. This approach resonates to a certain extent to the thinking of De Certeau, and is underlined by the resistance to formalize, institutionalize or stagnate oneself. At the site of the intervention, however, one is puzzled by the political project, or cultural project, or any project at all, of the “resistance”. If the politics of everyday were to be understood by heart, it would have to be understood and activated by everybody. The activation part was partially achieved by the process of reflection of the artistic work – though at first seeing not necessarily deemed as artistic work, yet a networking of those activated thinking is largely missing. If we look at artists as creative singularities, whose explicit ideas on politics and the world stay more or less in the comfort zones of discourse that are constructed by artists themselves, we could trust that these discourses will have little influence over real lives. It is general consensus anyway that art cannot change politics directly, in the same way that art cannot boost the level of GDP. The general hope lies in the power of art to light up imaginations, however winded the way it may be to find its articulations and henceforth actions. In this regard, we cannot pronounce the effects of the artwork, as we cannot estimate the consequences of the rustle of a butterfly’s wings.

One could, however, regard this constellation as a test site for the free-flow of antagonistic relations in the Mouffe and Laclau way. Indeed, when we think of a well staged public protest of any nature, we tend to leave the internal structure of the protesting body out of question precisely because it is usually regarded as a unifying integrity against a somehow dramatized, evil other. Yet when one is in the middle of it, questions of levels and alignment of motive necessarily arise: the protesting body is itself an antagonistic body and could only survive as such. In light of this, the temporary uplifting of any logic at all in the case of Ma Yongfeng’s Micro Resistance serves exactly the need for self-criticality, despite the fact that it didn’t quite launch itself in the political realm.

May 12

by An Xiao on May 7,2013

China Residencies maintains a growing directory of residency offerings available to foreigners.

China Residencies maintains a growing directory of residency offerings available to foreigners.

SAN FRANCISCO — As interest in China grows, so does interest in its art scene. And while I’ve met countless artists in the US who have wanted to travel to China, the barriers to access remain high, due to language, culture, and cost.

A New China Residency Initiative

Last year, I wrote about residencies in China that are worth considering, but there are dozens more. China Residencies, a new nonprofit started by longtime China-based artists/art lovers Crystal Ruth Bell and Kira Simon-Kennedy, aims to help Western artists navigate the wide range of opportunities.

“We think there are between 30 and 50 programs active right now,” wrote Simon-Kennedy in an email to Hyperallergic. Bell, who directed the residency program at Red Gate Gallery, saw that many of these residencies received little coverage outside of China.

“Crystal started meeting with residency admins in 2010 to talk about the unique challenges of existing in China: residencies relied almost entirely on word-of-mouth to attract applicants, and sometimes had a difficult time filling spots with qualified artists. The lack of visibility also limited the amount of funding visiting artists and programs could receive,” she said.

Bell and Simon-Kennedy are currently raising money on Indiegogo to fund the project, which includes a research trip throughout China to understand the wide variety of residency opportunities. Their directorycurrently lists 22 residencies, most of which are in Beijing, and they plan to add additional resources such as residency reviews and practical resources for China travelers. They’ll also be sharing their knowledge with existing projects like ResArtis and Residency Unlimited, who are supporting their work.

UNCUT TALKS: SoundCloud meets public radio meets China's art scene

UNCUT TALKS: SoundCloud meets public radio meets China’s art scene

UNCUT TALKS: A New Audio Magazine from China

Can’t travel to China just yet? Never fear. Around this same time, I was contacted by Beijing artist Ma Yongfeng about a new audio magazine he’s been producing with Hyperallergic contributor Alessandro Rolandi and arts writer Edward Sanderson. Consisting of unedited audio discussions uploaded to Soundcloud,UNCUT TALKS, as Ma writes on his blog, is a platform that “collects, and makes available for everyone to listen to, hours of conversations among interesting people in China and around the world on some of the most challenging and provocative topics of our time.”

So far, the magazine includes some 30 interviews, with a wide variety of individuals from China’s art scene, conducted in both Chinese and English. Although translations are not yet available for the Chinese audio, the channel is a great way to bring some of the aesthetics and intimacy of audio recordings to an art world community that can seem dense and complex to outsiders.

I’m excited about both projects and look forward to seeing how they move forward. Art fosters unique forms of dialogue that only seem more and more important given China’s increase presence on the world stage.

“China is a very complicated place, and at times when the government of the People’s Republic clashes with other nations on countless topics, we think helping foster more dialogue on the citizen level through artistic exchange will lead to a greater mutual understanding,” Simon-Kennedy explained.

Apr 21

Change of art

Social media has become a powerful tool of expression supported by the masses, writes Victoria Burrows

Social media art offers a wide canvas and an unlimited palette. Illustrations: Craig Stephens
If you saw any of the hundreds of manipulated cartoons, film posters and photographs of chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen being shared online during last year's election, you were part of a brave new world of art that is challenging social norms, political control and the definition of art itself. Or so say proponents of social media art - art that uses sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Tumblr as its medium of creation and dissemination.

During last year's election, Tang, who illegally added an underground expansion to his luxury home, was made fun of in numerous cartoons and satirical works, including one online poster where Tang's face grins from a Harry Potter movie spoof below the caption "Kowloon Basement and the Chamber of Secrets".

Amusing, but is it art? Yes, say artists and art critics, for two reasons.

First, as Hong Kong gallery owner and critic John Batten says: "Andy Warhol demonstrated that anything could be art - the use of the internet is just an extension of that idea."

Second, when it comes to social media art, according to one definition hashed out during an artists' roundtable discussion on the Facebook page of New York City-based blogazine Hyperallergic, the artwork in question is not one satirically altered movie poster, but the collective activity of multiple, at times anonymous, artists. Often they are just members of the public not practising or trained in art, all working on the same meme - in this case, Henry Tang's illegal basement. One can hardly dispute that it is a wonderfully witty and creative outpouring.

At the heart of the issue is the slight but important distinction between art on social media, and social media art. An artist painting a picture, photographing it and putting it up on Facebook, or making a video, uploading it to YouTube, and tweeting the link is not social media art. The medium needs to be integrated into the work.

Take the meme of the Pepper Spray Cop that spread through the internet last year. A row of seated protesters at the University of California were showered with pepper spray by a policeman, Lieutenant John Pike. The image of Pike, spray can in hand, was posted on social news website Reddit. The next day, two Photoshopped images appeared online, one with another meme, the image of actor Leonardo DiCaprio walking jauntily, known as Strutting Leo, Photoshopped over Pike.

The second image saw Pike superimposed into the 1819 painting Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull.

An incident in which a policeman attacked seated protesters withpepper spray prompted a flood of Photoshopped images that went online, symbolising the essence of socialmedia art.

As news of the pepper spray incident circulated on television, in newspapers and on online news sites, the meme spread. Soon, hundreds of Photoshopped images were shared, including Pike superimposed into Picasso's famous anti-war painting Guernica and on to an image of the United States Constitution.

The social media artwork here is not an original, authentic image, or the individual images created based on this original, but the diverse, creative collection of works.

"A social media artwork can have collective authorship," says American artist An Xiao Mina, one of the artists involved in trying to define social media art during the Hyperallergic roundtable discussion. "This is different from having an anonymous author or no author. Although the Pepper Spray Cop meme can be identified to a couple of posts that launched the meme, the original authors haven't been identified. The merits of this activity as an art form are debatable, but it's no question to me that the collective activity was more interesting than any individual image or video."

In social media art, the web is not only involved in the sourcing and marketing of the art, but also its expression. An Xiao and the other artists in the Hyperallergic group identified three other characteristics: that the art involves the audience in some fashion as it is inherently a social medium; that the art is accessible beyond a "typical" art world audience while still being conceptually rich; and that, ultimately, the art is all about the artist's intent, and it should be judged accordingly.

Judging social media art, which is inherently plural and shifting, is tricky. While An Xiao says that critiquing a social media art piece involves the same process as other art forms - understanding the artist's intent, and assessing how successfully the artist has achieved this - Joanie San Chirico, another of the Hyperallergic roundtable artists, points out that the audience's influence can alter a piece.

"The artist's intent has to be fluid and may even transform before the completion of the work." Also, when there are multiple, anonymous artists, involved, intent can differ, and be unknown. As mainland artist Ma Yongfeng says: "Everyone can be an artist in today's world; this means you don't need anyone to endorse you as qualified as a social media artist. As everybody can be a social engine, so the artist's identity is not important now. What's critical is that you can provide new energy for this over-institutionalised society. People use this tool to create, protest and demonstrate … maybe one day they [can] really change something."

Henry Tang's illegal basement extension led to controversy all over the city and on the internet.

Critics point to the banality of social media art. Paddy Johnson, art editor at online The L Magazine, states: "Much social media art, while refreshingly clear in intent - statements written by artists working with social media are actually a joy to read - often lacks the creative juice that defines truly great art." There is, however, no doubt social media art can be powerful. When social media art takes place in the field of social or political commentary, it is at its most exciting. Mainland artist Ai Weiwei continues to provoke authorities with his art, which includes the use of social media, such as his political take on South Korean musician Psy's Gangnam Style song and video, which went globally viral. Of course, using popular media for propaganda is nothing new. "The Philippines and texting was a much earlier exponent - earlier than Ai - of political messaging using social-type media," Batten says. "It's similar to the dropping from a plane of propaganda material over enemy territory during wartime. The mainland sent similar messages by balloon over Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution. Same idea, different media."

The idea may be nothing new, but the media seems to be working. The posters and cartoons ridiculing Tang allowed the public to voice their discontent and disseminate it, further swaying public opinion. Tang, once thought to be the favoured contender in the chief executive race, could only sit back and watch as his candidacy unravelled

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