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Issue 216

UCCA Dune Asks Whether Art Can Survive a 'Crisis in Attention'

In the Aranya Gold Coast Community, north of Beijing, an exhibition aims to critically intervene with its spectacular surroundings

BY Alvin Li in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 23 NOV 20

Since opening in 2018, UCCA Dune has been recognized as one of the most ambitious and beautiful works of architecture to have emerged from China’s decade-long museum boom. Yet, it is not without its defects. Located in the Aranya Gold Coast Community, a gated luxury resort 300 kilometres north of Beijing, this satellite space of Beijing’s distinguished UCCA Center for Contemporary Art has been aptly described by the organization’s director of research, Patrick Rhine, as caught in ‘a crisis of attention’. It’s fitting, then, that Rhine’s first curatorial project at the museum, ‘A Call to Attention’, should reject spectacle in favour of more critical modes of engagement.

The beach-side structure, designed by Li Hu of OPEN Architecture, is composed of a series of ten interconnected galleries, seven of which are indoor, carved into the encircling sand dune and blending harmoniously into the natural surroundings. Like many other spectacular art museums, UCCA Dune’s strange curves, odd angles and enormous heights not only pose logistical challenges to exhibition display, but can also interfere with the attention visitors pay to the art. This deficit of focus is further aggravated by a social-media culture that tends to flatten the museum experience into a mere image in a curated online lifestyle.

Zhu Tian, Scan, 2014
Zhu Tian, Scan, 2014, inkjet on ultra-white glass. Courtesy: the artist and UCCA Dune, Beidaihe District

In response, ‘A Call to Attention’ brings together new and recent work by seven artists that invites reflection as to what constitutes meaningful engagement. Whereas UCCA Dune’s previous exhibitions have leaned heavily on large-scale sculptures that match the grandiosity of the space, this show features participatory installations, performances and films, which require more intimate forms of interaction. 

The central gallery houses three works by Chinese artist Zhu Tian. In a 2014 performance, Selling the Worthless, the artist auctioned off scanned images of parts of her body via WeChat. The performance is reconstructed in the gallery space through video documentation of the chat history, played back on a flat screen with pictures of the artist’s scanning process (but not the sold, scanned images themselves) printed onto glass panes ringing the room (Scan, 2014). In the context of the exhibition, Zhu’s bold commentary on the commodification of the female body – and her refusal to display it as such – invites further reflection on the logics of hypervisibility and incessant performance reshaping the audience’s experiences of art and museums in an age of spectacle. 

Pilvi Takala, Easy Rider, 2006
Pilvi Takala, Easy Rider, 2006, video still. Courtesy: the artist and UCCA Dune, Beidaihe District

Several other works in the exhibition similarly challenge the museum’s normal dynamics of attention. Pilvi Takala’s brilliant early work Real Snow White (2009) – in which she walks around Disneyland Paris dressed as Snow White, eventually being ejected by the resort staff – is shown together with a more recent piece, The Stroker (2018), filmed in the east London co-working space Second Home, where she poses as a wellness consultant allegedly employed to touch people to improve their performance. Meanwhile, Lee Mingwei’s Letter to Oneself (2020) draws on the setting of the museum, within a seaside resort, to reclaim its potential for spiritual edification. Gallery-goers are invited to write a letter responding to the prompt: in this moment, what makes you worry and what gives you hope? The letters are written at a desk facing the sea, then left on a nearby shelf.

As an attempt to revitalize audience engagement within a spectacular museum scenario, ‘A Call to Attention’ feels right. But I couldn’t help but wonder about the elephants in the room: the private developers behind such ventures, who perpetuate and capitalize on the consumption of art as spectacle, and a market-driven economy in which art qua cultural capital has become equivalent to real capital. Considering this larger cultural climate, the candour of the exhibition’s admirable call remains moot. 

A Call to Attention’ at UCCA Dune, Beidaihe District runs until 10 January 2021. 

Main image: Lee Mingwei, Letter to Oneself, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and UCCA Dune

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor of frieze, and The Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai, China.