‘East meets West’-themed exhibitions have inundated China’s freshly minted galleries and museums. These shows generally highlight obvious formal affinities between Western and Chinese artists, such as Pace Gallery Beijing’s inaugural show, ‘Encounters’ (2008), which paired, amongst others, Andy Warhol and Wang Guangyi. Shows like these, and art like Wang’s – a pastiche of Western pop and Maoist imagery – sum up an overarching tendency towards gimmicky notions of cross-cultural aesthetics.
It was truly refreshing, then, to see ‘From Gesture to Language’ at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum, which staged an intervention into the clichéd East/West trope. Curated by Rockbund director Larys Frogier and Pascal Torres Guardiola, curator of the Louvre’s Chalcographie collection, the exhibition brought together works from inside and outside of China, across various media and vast stretches of time. Presented without hierarchical organization or superficial juxtapositions were works ranging from 18th-century French etchings depicting Chinese Emperor Qianlong’s military operations to pieces by 26 contemporary artists, including Louise Bourgeois, Liu Dan, Kiki Smith and Zhao Xuebing. Culled from Guardiola’s engraving background and an international range of contemporary art, the works loosely cohered through references to linguistic deconstruction.
Intensified by the narrow staircases of Rockbund’s historic building, navigating this bursting show could feel downright uncomfortable. But discomfort often allows for the most interesting art encounters. Works by Giuseppe Penone, Danh Vo and Yang Jiechang came together, not in perfect accord but through abrupt transitions that conjured the awkward gaps of language and translation. The fourth-floor atrium displayed Martin Salazar’s bulky installation Réveil (2013), which comprised a looming wooden figure and room-sized box whose dark interior was illuminated by an overhead light shining on a typewriter displaying the final words of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925): ‘Like a Dog!’. This cumbersome and ominous work partially obstructed François Morellet’s Lamentable Ø 6m.50 Rouge (2006), its eight red neon rods forming a delicate structure that resembled but failed to equal an oversized linguistic or numerical signifier. Pairing these two works at the heart of the exhibition flexed some curatorial muscle: the ability to play heavy, foreboding structures against light, airy ones, the latter serving as unlikely punctuation marks. ‘From Gesture to Language’ assembled art into meandering sentences that downplayed literal meaning in favour of capricious combinations, like a Surrealist automatic poem.
Individual works played with language’s social construction and instrumentalization, while attesting to cultural barriers that limit communication. Bruce Nauman’s video installation Good Boy Bad Boy (1985) comprises side-by-side television monitors, featuring separate videos of a white woman and black man. Each speaker repeats similar 100-line commentaries, but their varying intonations, speeds and appearances have diverging connotations and seeming tensions between the two, until they eventually erupt into screams. Jenny Holzer’s light installation Purple (2008) displayed classified material related to US national security, including notes on wars in the Middle East, torture, injuries and death. The texts, redacted so that some words are replaced by menacing ‘XXX’s, were presented as electronic scrolls on curved LED light tubes, saturated in purple. This Chinese exhibition of Purple became all the more salient as it coincided with Edward Snowden’s dramatic flight to Hong Kong, where he leaked information on the NSA’s surveillance programmes. ‘From Gesture to Language’ deviated from the typical East/West exhibition, exposing cross-cultural collision and linguistic conflict.
Xu Bing, well known for the English-Chinese pseudo-language he invented, further mystified with Magic Carpet (2006), a large handmade carpet decorated with four passages from various religious texts. Mimicking the classical palindromic poem Xuanji Tu by Su Hui, the colour-coded passages can be read in multiple directions, but, written in the artist’s signature English-Chinese calligraphy, they were nearly impenetrable. Similarly, Xu’s The Order of the Birds (2013) reconfigured Saint John Perse’s poetry in 3,000 cast-aluminium letters, which spread over the sixth floor and crashed down onto the fourth in utter illegibility.
In Chinese, you can sometimes look at a pictograph-derived character and understand its meaning without knowing how to pronounce it; while with highly phonetic Western languages, you might know exactly how to utter a word without understanding its meaning. ‘From Gesture to Language’ traversed and complicated this linguistic and cultural binary. While many of the show’s works plead to be read, their texts offered only nonsense, and an important reminder that among art’s greatest powers is its ability to disrupt conventional narratives. We can look at an art work and know neither what it signifies nor how to say it. This is art’s present to us.