To me, one of the on-going strengths of post-modern art is the way it manages to break down the divide between the work of art and the viewing public. It’s as though art has been unleashed from the distancing decorum of the wall hanging to something far more viscerally and disturbingly close. And this is very much what we get at the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition of Chinese performance and installation art, “Art of Change. New Directions from China”. This exhibition boasts of being, “the first major exhibition to focus solely on contemporary and performance art from China… featur[ing] works that deal in transformation, instability and impermanence”
Certainly, the intent of capturing the impermanence of performance, the throw away gesture, is at the heart of the exhibition. Throughout the gallery, you’ll find multiple computer screens where images and videos of past performance pieces have been recorded… the poor curator’s academic intent of preserving the ephemeral.
The exhibition’s first exhibit maps out what’s to come as you wander the gallery. As you enter, you’re confronted by the Madein Company’s large installation, “Revolutionary Castings” (The Madein Company is a creative collective established by the artist Xu Zhen). This is a series of stone plinths that look like gravestones. You walk among them as you would in a graveyard. But far from being gravestones, these are concrete casts, which feature the impressions of stones that were hurled – in anger, revolutionary fervor, vandalism. The audience has been asked to submit their own stones to have them also integrated into the on-going, on-hand, process of cast making. Here are gestures that have been solidified into permanence. Madein Company seeks to point out the ontological shift in signification from the stone as inanimate object to the stone as weapon, as expression of dissent. As an audience we’re invited to walk among and participate in both the idea and presence of revolution.
It’s a well chosen introduction to the exhibition as it brings together the multiple themes of anti-establishment art (we’re told that much of the art was done in a context of the need to evade and avoid state censorship even as it spoke out against it) and the conversation between the transience of the performance and the permanence of its record (the embedded ghost image of the thrown stones)
“Revolutionary Castings” also seems to nicely introduce and emphasize one of the ideas of the exhibition – the removal of the divide between ‘art’ and ‘life’. Indeed, many of the exhibits highlight the presence – or deliberate absence – of life, as an integral factor in the work: Yingmel Duan’s “Patience” features a simple suspended white shelf on one wall. It’s like one of those bookshelves that cleverly seem to have no visible means of support. But it’s not a bookshelf. At one end of the shelf, seemingly bursting through its neat order, stands a –real- person, her head resting on the shelf, like a vase. Take a simple shelf and fuse it with a simple standing person and you’ve transformed reality. Transformed it to what? A statement of entrapment? Is the standing person imprisoned by the shelf, with maybe its memory of books/rules/restrictions? Or is it a statement that suggests that even if the body is in stasis, the mind can float free?
The beauty of works, or rather ideas like this is that they present the viewer with the duality of an object that exists as a temporal, ephemeral thing (the human will die, the shelf will rot, will be removed from the wall of the Hayward etc) and the fact of art, which exists outside of history; in a sort of abstract permanence.
This magical combination of life within art or rather art that’s art because of life is Liang Shaoji’s vast silk-worm installation. Here he’s installed hundreds of silk worms forever spinning their gossamer cocoons on solid objects – such as hanging chains, where the web of silk that has enfolded – and continues to enfold – them transform them into alien forms, seemingly lighter than air; on wooden frames, like the frames of paintings where the image is constantly evolving and changing; on miniature faery-like beds where the spinning silk covers them like a skein of dreams. In an adjoining room, you can, through headphones hanging from the ceiling, listen to the actual sound of the worms spinning their silken wonder. Liang Shoji has dragooned the real world – actual living creatures – into both fashioning the raw material of art (the results of which are hanging on a wall) and into being an ever-changing artwork in the process of being made.
In the image featured, Chen Zhen’s Purification Room, we see an entire room covered in a sort of muddy ash, like a modern Pompeii. It’s an image that shoves the viewer into a weird time zone as if he/she’s looking back in time from some distant future. You wonder at the name, “Purification Room”. Purified of what? Human presence? History?
Some of the works seem, to me, overly constructed installations springing from small ideas – like Wang Jinawei’s “Making do with Fakes”, where you’re invited to hit a ping pong ball on a concertina-ed tennis table and, are requested by the artist, to let it stay wherever it landed, suggesting a sort of existential randomness to art’s influence. Huh?
As an exhibition of China’s art of dissent, I’m reminded of Malraux who wrote in “The Voices of Silence”, “history aims merely at transposing destiny on to the plane of consciousness, art transmutes it into freedom”
So, be free to experience this marvelous exhibition