Marking the fifth anniversary of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), this extensive group exhibition of 50 Chinese artists born after 1975 outlines the work of a generation that came of age alongside a number of art institutions that were crucial to their professional emergence and establishment. ‘ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice’ takes the first part of its title from the graphic interface of virtual private network software commonly used to bypass firewalls. Here, this alludes to the flexible modes of access and participation enjoyed by a young generation of artists unconcerned with the ideological pressures of representation that their predecessors professed. The show reveals that this generation’s preoccupations are often aesthetic, expressionistic and existential. Elevating such a heterogeneous corpus without falling prey to medium-driven categorization or overarching frameworks is no simple feat. In the attempt to eschew both, ‘ON | OFF’ cohered around an elusive metaphorical bracketing which, renouncing thematic groupings, failed to provide nuanced perspectives.
Having surveyed the practices of more than 200 individuals and collectives from across the country, co-curators Bao Dong, an independent critic, and Sun Dongdong, a senior editor at LEAP magazine, selected a group of artists intended to capture the ‘multivalence and liminality’ of artistic sensibilities rooted in the cultural milieu of the reform years. ‘ON | OFF’ offers an overview of their subjective gestures against a social backdrop of proliferating dualities, unresolved tensions and extremes.
The bodies of work selected for the exhibition, which occupy all of UCCA’s galleries, include an intriguing variety of existing and newly created pieces spanning all media. One shared aspect that stands out is their disaffection for overtly political messages. Hints at critique are vague at best; tame irony or perfunctory theatrics are used to elicit the contemporary technologies of social control and soft power, as in Xin Yunpeng’s No Problem (2013), a mechanical rodeo bull stationed in the lobby that deflates as visitors attempt to ride it, while Tang Dixin’s Reverse (2013), in the adjacent long nave, presents viewers with a bicycle-powered propeller set in front of a towering industrial fan they are invited to race against.
Other works sublimate such conflicting forces, such as Huang Ran’s Maybe We Just Care About the Feeling of Caring (2013), in which soap bubbles collide with high-voltage screens, or Zhang Ding’s Control Club (2013), a massive tower of noise-emitting speakers, which creates a tension between mediated experience and entropic space. Some works expose their political messages via performative interventions, as does Li Liao’s Consumption (2012), for which he worked on the assembly line at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen for 45 days – as long as it took to purchase the iPad Mini that the factory produces. Liao presents the device alongside documents and material evidence of his labour.
Less stagy and more cunning contributions touch on feelings of contemporary anomie and internal unbalance, for example Wen Ling’s hand-drawn illustrations, which storyboard the routine of a tragicomically uneventful One Day in My Life (2012). Fang Lu’s Lovers Are Artists II (2012) is the second in a series of works inspired by Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1979) – a meditation on the consuming emotion of love likened to art – the video portrays a lone young woman busily performing seemingly nonsensical tasks (topping a cream cake with shoes, action-painting with chewed chocolate) that are slowly revealed as the eccentric idling of an artist’s studio practice. Among the pieces in the central cluster of video rooms is a notable video by Cheng Ran. Existence Without Air, Food, or Water (2013) is less visually elaborate than the artist’s previous works, which are often heavily informed by art-house cinema, yet it distinctively illustrates the frailty of memory and time – described in streaming fragments of mental images and words along with an accompanying song. The work conveys a haunting sense of anonymity with narrative elegance and forthright simplicity, elements which are otherwise largely missing among the exhibited works.
The curators tried to accommodate for stylistic diversity by including several lesser-known artists (such as Shi Wanwan, Liu Xinyi and Chen Zhe), but the show’s lack of framing devices and spatial coherence still play out at the expense of cohesiveness and consistency. The textured variations of materiality and objecthood mastered by painters like Wang Guangle, Liang Yuanwei and Xie Molin are misrepresented by the restrictive selection of their works, but present in Qiu Xiaofei’s painterly installation Recurring (2012) and the monumental wall piece by Wang Yuyang The Narrative of a Stack of Paper (2012), a material document of the life-cycle of 901 handmade sheets used to make it. While ‘ON | OFF’ would make a decent travelling show for audiences unfamiliar to the local scene, it is less satisfying for those drawn to exhibitions with refreshing theoretical articulations and more declarative curatorial positions.