The expression ‘seek truth from facts’ – central to curator Anselm Franke’s catalogue essay and appearing in Peter Ablinger’s The Truth or: How To Teach The Piano Chinese (2014), the first artwork encountered by visitors to the 10th Shanghai Biennale – felt like the exhibition’s unofficial maxim. Coined in a 2nd century CE dynastic history of China, and invoked successively by Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Franke’s attention to the phrase indicates his attempt to root this edition in an indigenous intellectual history. Yet, just as it justified programmes as different as Mao’s and Deng’s, the expression’s resonance is both specific and vague – fitting for an exhibition that oscillated between the particular and the general, the individual and the common.
On a balcony above the foyer, Liu Chuang’s Segmented Landscape (2014) enacted a subtle drama out of the (literal) threshold of public and private activity as six ornate window grilles framed pieces of gauze, which blew in an artificial wind. Installed nearby, Erik Steinbrecher’s Fore Head (2014) comprised blurry pink A1 posters plastered across a wall, forming an undulating abstraction, which, on closer inspection, was revealed to consist of extreme close-ups of the artist’s forehead – almost a visualization of Ezra Pound’s wonder at ‘these faces in the crowd’ in his poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913). Willem de Rooij’s Bouquet V (2010), a floor above, offered a similar picture of singularity-in-plurality: an arrangement of 95 flowers, no two the same. Together, these works deftly built up a picture of the co-dependence of the macro- and the micro-social: of how, to adapt Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, there is such a thing as society, as well as individuals. During an introductory talk, Franke cited China’s meticulous court records among his inspirations, positioning them as precedents for contemporary mass surveillance, Big Data and ‘algorithmic government’. Accordingly, many of the works engaged elements of mass observation. Hou Chun-Ming’s painting series ‘Asian Father’ (2014) compares city-by-city the results of interviews conducted by the artist about his subjects’ dreams; Peter Friedl contributed (along with three other works) the ongoing documentation of the world’s playgrounds which he began in 1995; while one room held a scrupulous archive of photos from David & Isabel Crook’s landmark research in the rural Hebei province of northern China during the 1940s. Strengthening the impression of a sociological seminar was an abundance of graphs: from KP Brehmer’s Soul and Feeling of a Worker (1978–80), describing via a colour-coded schema the differing moods of a single West German labourer over the course of a year, to the four works by Stephen Willats, including his grid of input-output symbols, Diagram Wall (2008), to Suzanne Treister’s HEXEN 2.0 (2009–11), which plotted an abridged history of information networks in cartoonish charts: like a lecture by Trevor Paglen illustrated by Roz Chast.
Besides Treister’s piece, in a neat pairing of works, was Aleksandra Domanovic´’s documentary about Yugoslavia’s early engagement with the internet, From yu to me (2013–14). Indeed, so smooth were many of the Biennale’s transitions, so intuitive the thematic links, it sometimes felt like I was following the workings of an elegant bit of circuitry – though one whose purpose or principles I didn’t necessarily understand. For Liquidation Maps (2014), Yin Ju-Chen plotted and interpreted astrological charts for the dates of five Asian crises, from the 1942 Sook Ching Massacre to East Timor in the late 1990s. Reproach jostling with resignation, it was never clear how far fatalism was being merely courted for satirical effect. The same ambivalent occultism seemed at play in Huang Ran’s winning The Administration of Glory (2014), its cast of desert assassins, humanoid test monkeys, a man shooting a wall of balloons and others positing history as the plaything of shady cabals, eccentrics and mystics. Neïl Beloufa’s World Domination (2013) treated superpower negotiations as a farce or stunt – like Dr. Strangelove (1964), it was entertaining but no less toothless a critique.
Call it timidity, or necessity, but this might also be a sincere response to ideological hesitation, a moment in which certain narratives waver. Indeed, measured reflection on the local past was more pronounced here than hyperbolic speculation about the global future: witness the inclusion of Zhao Yannian’s woodcuts illustrating Lu Xun’s True Story of Ah Q (1921) or Liu Ding’s For the Sake of Ten Thousand: The Bust of an Old Hero (2014), carved to the strict dictates of officially endorsed style, but still covered in sculptor’s crosses, as if ready for re-chiselling. After all, Franke and his co-curators seemed to say, the advance of capitalism has never been strictly linear: Edgar Arceneaux’s response to the dramatic decline of Detroit, The Algorithm Doesn’t Love You (2010–14), is testimony to how unpredictable the economic long run can be.
Neglect and slow natural processes nibbled at this Biennale’s fringes. Sugar crystals had been grown over discarded wooden crates at the centre of Arceneaux’s installation; in Trevor Yeung’s Maracujá Road (2014), passion fruit plants grew towards bamboo panels which themselves slowly rose, so the tendrils never reached their targets; water, mixed with salt from each of the world’s oceans, slowly leaked from a 1,000-litre container in Erik Steinbrecher’s Ocean of the World (2014); a caterpillar chewed leaves in monstrous close-up in Joseph Cornell’s film By Night with Torch and Spear (1942).
The surprising presence of Cornell’s molten montage struck me as a subtle admission of the exhibition’s odd austerity: its dearth, for all its cogency and intelligence, of sheer sensory engagement – exemplified by the contrast between Ablinger’s work and Huang Yong Ping’s showy, crowd-pleasing Guanyin of a Thousand Hands (1997–2012), which stood in the same space during the 9th edition. Even on my third or fourth round, I struggled to recall the works that featured colour (though they were there, plenty of them), or to isolate, among the grids and graphics and truths and facts, a moment of feeling, of emotional connection. In this context, some pieces – the tender art-world spoof of Yu Cheng-Ta’s rehearsed sitcom Practicing LIVE (2014), the suite of seasick paintings by Firenze Lai, all queasy colours and awkward grace, and the fiercely worked calligraphy of Tang Chang – had perhaps disproportionate impact. Such was my preference, at least.