BY Brian Curtin in Reviews | 01 OCT 07

A self-curated exhibition of new work by 11 artists, ‘NONO’ declared itself theme-less and concept-less. Its ‘non-title’ supposedly resulted from the artists’ responses to each other’s proposed titles. With so much negation, one could only ask, ‘What, then?’

The accompanying statement for ‘NONO’ asked: ‘In a period accustomed to the discursive power of the curator, is the lack of a curator an inadequacy or another type of curatorial flamboyance?’ In this respect the exhibition appeared to acknowledge that it was already caught up in that discursive power: it would either be judged by it or considered a variation of its terms. Isn’t this rather odd? An exhibition that addresses the power claimed for curators but ultimately only seeks to affirm that power?

One possible reason for this stance (or non-stance) is that it circumvents the need to explain what the artists believe constitutes the ‘discursive power’ of curators. After all, any proposed definitions of curatorial power would surely elicit dispute. By not engaging this question, ‘NONO’ risked appearing to lack the guts to define and counter it’s own central question. Instead it raised further, convoluted issues such as ‘Is there an illusion of swampy marshes from which contemporary Chinese artists must rescue themselves?’ Or ‘Is a “bottleneck” among art and artists a hypothetical exercise or a sign of imminent disaster?’ The statement concluded with appeals to the viewer’s sympathy: ‘The participating artists have kept a low profile leading up to this exhibition … Perhaps this kind of experience is a necessary requirement for creativity.’

The trajectory of this accompanying statement reflected the questions raised as I walked through the exhibition: from an ostensibly straightforward proposition of relationships between a set of art works (as though it would be possible to ensure an arbitrary or random arrangement) through to unanswerable questions such as why these artists were chosen, why there was a dominant focus on issues specific to China, why no paintings were included and, finally, what the rationale was for the exhibition as a whole. The refusal of ‘NONO’ clearly to announce the object of its address was initially irksome: I was caught between trying to uncover profundity amid the lack of a clear focus and simply dismissing the exhibition. But that was the show's paradoxical stance: it forced you to acknowledge the need for curatorial guidance. I was reminded of an open submission exhibition some time ago at the Colony gallery in Birmingham, UK, where every submission was shown, as a snub to the curators’ decisions. But such an approach cannot undermine what we understand the work of curators to be; it only reductively claims, and reinforces, the terms of curated exhibitions as selective and thematic. ‘NONO’ had a much smarter sense of critique.

The questions outlined above ultimately allowed the experience of the individual art works to be paramount. Forget who the artists are and why they have been grouped together. Xu Zhen’s Untitled (2007) was a remarkably ambitious response to Damien Hirst’s signature works. A fibreglass replica of a dinosaur split between two enormous tanks of formaldehyde, the piece spoke much of the tensions between authenticity and the commodification of contemporary art. Yang Zhenzhong’s video of skyscrapers moving rapidly in an upward motion, Na Xiong Na Er (2007), was a compulsive sexualization, and therefore humanization, of Beijing’s rapid growth as a modern metropolis. Some of the works showed up the lack of concern with a substantial context: Colin Chinnery’s Unicorn (2007) – an initially curious-looking series of snail shells rising to full, pointed erection – emerged as a facile metaphor for masculine/feminine relations. Zhu Yu reinvigorated an otherwise familiar technique of Conceptual art, in the form of bureaucratic, documentary aesthetics, in 192 Art Proposals for the Member States of the United Nations (2006–7). Unrestricted in scope and references, the collection included images of the Virgin Mary for the Congo and Chinese-style lions and tigers moving through a landscape in Togo, Harry Potter’s face and semi-pornographic images of women with alien heads.

To characterize relations between the art works would be to run counter to the essential ambitions of ‘NONO’; at its most successful, the exhibition showed intelligence, formal ambition and a need to revise perceptions of Chinese contemporary art for the international context. The best artists demonstrated a dialogue with their international counterparts, rather than merely insisting on their own national significance. Maybe this was why there was no painting.

Brian Curtin is an art critic based in Bangkok, Thailand. His book Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand is due to be published by Reaktion Books in 2021.