Compared to two other large-scale exhibitions that opened in Beijing around the same time, ‘Nowhere to Live’ was relatively modest and had no grand ambition to showcase young artists in China as a phenomenon. The other two shows, which garnered most of the attention in the press and from the public, both aimed to provide an extensive survey of a new generation of artists, consolidating a general fixation with youth among art institutions and galleries in China. ‘Art Nova 100’, the second edition of an annual event showcasing works by 120 artists in the 798 Art District, was essentially an art fair in nature – a one-week event offering modestly priced art works by young artists. The other show was the first of an annual exhibition series branded as ‘CAFAM• Future’ at the museum of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Co-curated by artist Xu Bing and curator Alexandra Munroe, the exhibition invited dozens of active curators and artists in China to recommend artists under the age of 35, from which 95 were chosen. Despite its scale and scope, the exhibition itself was little more than an index of around 200 works, without much curatorial subjectivity. While they could certainly make claims for quantity, in both of these blockbuster exhibitions quality was clearly in short supply.
It was therefore refreshing to enter the first curatorial exercise by Wei Guo, a young Chinese curator who had only recently returned to Beijing following a one-year MA curatorial programme at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, before she was tragically killed in a car accident earlier this year. ‘Nowhere to Live’ took the form of three sequential exhibitions, featuring the works of two young Chinese artists. In each show, Guo had tried to articulate a sense of anxiety about self-definition and self-positioning that is particularly present among her peers and friends, many of whom also studied abroad and returned to live and work in China – the place where they grew up and to which they still belong, despite finding it perplexing at times. Guo’s curatorial statement conveyed this sense of placelessness: ‘If we are trapped in a state of having nowhere to hide or store ourselves away, then we are everywhere at once.’
Each of the three installments took place for about three weeks, with only a couple of days in between, keeping the entire exhibition tight and cohesive. All six participating artists were friends that Guo met while in London and who shared her interest in ‘nomadic and contextually fluid existences’. The first show, ‘Territory’, introduced recent works by Chun Jia and Tianzhuo Chen. Though their aesthetics have little in common, both aspire to establish their own personalized systems – Jia in works inspired by Minimalism, and Chen in an exploration of religious rituals. The second stage, ‘Pending’, conveyed the indecisive state of being through the conceptually driven works of the artist collective Aspartime. A new commission comprised a line of indiscernible writing in white neon (Star Space, 2012). The third installment, ‘Place’, featured works by Funa Ye and Peiyuan Jiang, both of whose practices create channels of self-articulation based on other systems of communication. Jiang meticulously covers decorative landscape paintings with dense black pencil lines, while Ye replaces letters of words unknown to her in news stories in British newspapers with letters that would make the words comprehensible to her.
The sequence of ‘Nowhere to Live’ began with the conceptual vision of one’s place in the world, continued with a state that is yet to be defined and established, and arrived at ‘Place’, a concrete reference to reality. In all three instalments, works were shown in the two connecting rooms while the third room was turned into a display of archival materials relating to each of the artists, along with a filmed interview between the curator and each artist. Guo was sensitive towards the presentation of each work in relation to space and light, and kept the installations aesthetically minimal, without making any overstatement, successfully conveying the sense that looking for a place to be and exist is a basic concern for all of us.