With its Vegas-on-steroids skyline Shanghai looks like the futuristic city that the West has only been able to dream about. Walking beneath its high-tech baroque skyscrapers, I kept feeling like I was patrolling the vast set of a science fiction film or that I was visiting another period of time as well as another part of the world – one in which change occurs at an ever-accelerating rate.
As a backdrop for contemporary art exhibitions the city offers a daunting challenge: compared to its futuristic ambience, after all, most current art seems fairly quaint. But at first encounter the Fifth Shanghai Biennial appeared ready to take this challenge head-on, greeting visitors with a work that winked at the surrounding urban spectacle. On the art museum’s clock tower the hour hands spun wildly, racing around at 100 revolutions per minute. A work by Xu Zhen, one of the most interesting younger artists in China, it indelibly summed up the city’s fast-forward ethos in an ambivalently antic image.
Regrettably, the exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum seemed intent on turning the clock slowly backwards. Entitled ‘Techniques of the Visible’ and curated by a gang of four – Vancouverite Zheng Shengtian, Amsterdamer Sebastian Lopez, Shanghai Art Museum curator Zhang Qing, and Xu Jiang, who besides being President of the China Academy of Art also happens to be the son of China’s current premier – its core premise was a 1980s-style thesis about the politics of representation. It is not a theoretical moment for which I have yet felt any pangs of nostalgia, and reading curatorial declarations that media culture alters our ways of seeing and thinking, while suppressing and/or constructing particular social histories, only left me cluelessly wondering why, in this particular place and time, anyone would want to revisit such well-trodden territory without at least offering some kind of dramatically revisionist re-reading.
In practice the biennials examination of ‘techniques of the visible’ translated into a focus on photo-related practices. The show surveyed this field with sweeping thoroughness, presenting films, videos and photographic works that spanned a broad range of approaches from the essayistic to the fantastical, from the documentary to the spectacular, from the Conceptual to the memorial, while employing a panoply of technical formats, including animation and digital reconstruction, 3-D imagery and the ubiquitous multi-screen projection.
Within this context the inclusion of Jeff Wall, who contributed five recent light-boxed works, seemed utterly predictable, casting the artist as a kind of patron saint of pictorial art that engages with the problematics of representation. Curiously, though, Wall’s thought-provoking pictures were shoved into a dead-end back corner of the museum’s ground floor, while more central gallery spaces were devoted to utterly banal photographic works by Chinese artists such as Rong Rong, who offered glossy and vacuous ‘performance’ documentation of himself and his partner Inri prancing naked across landscapes of snow and ice, and Liu Zheng, whose ‘Survivors Photography’ series was one of the low points in the exhibition. This series – which consists of giant head shots of faux disaster victims, their faces carefully distressed with blood, dirt and plaster dust – suggests nothing so much as a slickly calculated Benetton ad campaign from the early 1990s. Instead of parodying the way the mass-media turn tragedy into entertainment spectacle, Liu’s work simply mimics their mechanisms.
Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s handsomely composed photographs of desolate ceremonial halls across China – places that had once been used as political meeting places – were far more intriguing (although I have to admit my tolerance for images of empty yet historically charged architectural sites has been pretty much exhausted). For segments of a Chinese audience these spaces no doubt evoke collective memories, yet how this straightforward documentary project might ‘unsettle notions of photography as a representational medium’ – as the biennale’s curators claim in a catalogue text – completely escaped me. And in any case, disputing photography’s truth quotient at this point in time seems like a strangely antiquated, not to say redundant, agenda for an artist (or curator) to be pursuing.
The most interesting artworks in the biennial embrace quirkier and more subjective approaches to representing recent historical and cultural landscapes. Taipei-based artist Chen Chieh-Jen’s video Factory (2003) is an unpredictable and elegant meditation on unemployed women workers who have been left behind in the wake of economic and technological ‘progress’. Staged in an abandoned clothing factory with a cast made up of former employees, the video proceeds with a tableau-like deliberation that renders the passing of history in almost palpable, and very moving, terms. And for all its elegiac pacing Chen’s work is also laced with moments of surreal humour, as the women workers re-enact and investigate the ruins of their former lives.
In contrast to a number of flashy, multi-screened projections that offered confused or anaemic content, videos by Kota Ezawa and Philipp Lachenmann draw on strategies of aesthetic reconstruction in ways that are at once thoughtful and cunning. Ezawa’s The Simpson Verdict (2000) depicts the last two minutes of the O.J. Simpson trial as a South Park-style animation, creating a jarring disjunction between the real-life soundtrack and the radically simplified and innocent-looking images. In recasting a celebrity murder trial as a cartoon The Simpson Verdict acerbically comments on the travesty of turning legal proceedings into mass entertainment, while offering a harrowing retranslation of an overblown media event. Much quieter in tone, Lachenmann’s Space-Surrogate I (Dubai) (2001) depicts a solitary aeroplane grounded in a deserted landscape, where the shimmering of the air is the only indication of time passing. A digital recreation based on the only existing image of a 1977 hijacked passenger plane in Dubai, Lachenmann’s video succinctly links notions of terrorism, narrative displacement and arrested history.
Tellingly, one of the most ambitious and successful projects in the biennial showcased a primitive (and non-photographic) medium: paper-cutting. ‘The Yanchuan County Paper-Cut Research Project’, co-organized by the Beijing-based Long March Found-ation and the Yanchuan County government, presented selected findings from an eight-month survey of over 14,000 paper-cutters in the aforementioned Chinese province. Suggesting a collaboration between Hanne Darboven and the Chinese Communist Party, the most engaging part of this installation presented hundreds of identically framed documents, each of which included a photograph of the individual respondent, their responses to a questionnaire and examples of their paper-cutting work. With the latter revealing a range of historical influences from both political and traditional genres of art, the project underscored the ways in which even the most narrowly circumscribed aesthetic formats still allow room for individual variation and ingenuity, so forging a bridge between contemporary folk culture and art.
In pointed contrast the ‘professional’ paintings included in the biennial comprised a dull and unchallenging group. Most were photo-based, which seemed a disappointing choice at a moment when much of the most interesting painting being made is re-exploring the seam between abstraction and figuration. Yet the former approach, even when poorly conceived, can at least be said to ‘interrogate’ the medium of photography. It fits in, in other words, with the retro curatorial premise underlying and hamstringing this exhibition, whose fairly conservative choices functioned largely as illustrations to a fossilized ‘politics of representation’.