Just over 10 years ago, the Shanghai Biennale put that city on the global contemporary art map. Since 2000, guest curator Hou Hanru’s eclectic international mix, to say nothing of the now legendary independent shows that surrounded it, has never been surpassed in critical impact. But the current edition, which opened Oct. 23, is the most cohesive since 2004. The Biennale proper, organized as always at the Shanghai Art Museum, is weighted toward the serious and provocative. Offsite, it was supplemented for two months by an officially sanctioned satel- lite show about India and China that touched on sensitive issues rarely addressed in the People’s Republic.
The 2010 Biennale’s curatorial team is headed by Gao Shiming, a professor and program director at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, who is joined by Beijing’s National Art Museum of China director Fan Di’an, and artist and Shanghai Art Museum executive director Li Lei. They have titled their exhibition “Rehearsal,” apropos of Shanghai’s massive preparations for the 2010 World Expo (May 1–Oct. 31, 2010, overlapping the Biennale for one week), as well as the generally experimental nature of contemporary art. The show encompasses some 70 artists from 23 countries.
Wang Mai’s garish carousel populated by cartoonish oil-spouting figures greets visitors at the museum’s gate, although its flashy revolutions were halted during the opening due to a typhoon. Inside the museum, the south wing of the first floor features Zhang Huan’s rescued Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) temple, which served as the stage set for his production of the opera Semele in Brussels in 2009. Dominating the north section is Liu Wei’s installation Merely a Mistake II. The rambling work, constructed of debris from demolished buildings, references contentious topics like forced relocation and lost heritage. Behind it, Liu Xiaodong’s painting Leaving Beichuan, showing a group of young women against a backdrop of rubble and scavenging stray dogs, alludes to the catastrophic 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province.
The long second-floor hallway offers an odd mélange. Sculptor Mu Boyan’s shiny, bald, obese human figures and artificial animal corpses are distributed among numerous more thoughtful works. These include Chen Chieh-jen’s film depicting a fictitious strike by Kaohsiung, Taiwan, dockworkers and the bizarre, cluttered photography studio of Ma Liang (a.k.a. Maleonn), its components transported from nearby Weihai Lu, a downtown arts enclave soon to be displaced by a luxury retail development.
In the multimedia installation And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing, the Norwegian collective Verdensteatret employs live music, assorted bicycle wheels and projections of clouds to transport viewers to an unspecified but delightful place. Adjacent, Brussels-based Yves Bernard’s The Gate, a video work with an interactive screen, dissipates this dream with a stale take on the Second Life concept. But fantasy is soon revived by Yang Fudong’s room filled with rough, behind-the-scenes footage from his typically stylish, multiscreen new film Fifth Night. Likewise, Qiu Zhijie’s installation Qiu’s Notes on “Colorful Lanterns at Shangyuan Festival” elicits wonder by bringing to life an old village festival, surreally yet engag- ingly reinterpreted from a traditional genre painting. Qiu’s hodgepodge of masks, ink stones, keys and stuffed ravens achieves more quirky coherence than the Biennale itself.
Co-organized by Hong Kong dealer and scholar Johnson Chang and Indian professor and curator Chaitanya Sambrani, under the auspices of the West Heavens Project and its India-China Summit on Social Thought, the accompanying show, “Place·Time·Play” (Oct. 30–Dec. 30, 2010), was on view at two locales, including the entrance to an office building near the Shanghai Art Museum. There, Hu Xiangcheng’s candy-sprinkled cake sculptures of Indian and Chinese skylines hung in their respective culture’s traditional grain-sifting baskets, alluding to food scarcity and the vanishing of arable land as both deserts and urban development encroach. Shuffling images like cards on side-by-side screens, Indian artist Gigi Scaria’s No Parallel juxtaposes references to Mao Zedong and Mahatma Gandhi, a daring combination for protest-averse China.
Most of the West Heavens show was installed at a building awaiting refurbishment in the Rockbund complex, which also houses the recently launched Rockbund Art Museum. Works here delved into the fraught subject of the unruly Tibet and Kashmir border regions. The comparison between the two conflicts, though only implicit, was unmistakable. Here Qiu Zhijie again had a standout work, Railway from Lhasa to Katmandu, which explores the theme of 19th-century British spying and other colonialist activities in the region through square globes playing on traditional Chinese myths, a series of reworked religious scrolls and a set of railway tracks. Qiu forged the rails from discarded Buddhist temple artifacts, a process documented photographically, evoking both the backyard furnaces of China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the ongoing eradication of cultural, ethnic and religious identities. Like many of the works in “Place·Time·Play,” this piece could perhaps be shown only at a private venue graced, at least for this occasion, with tacit government approval.
Photos: (left) view of Qiu Zhijie’s installation Qiu’s Notes of “Colorful Lanterns at Shangyuan Festival.” (right) view of Verdensteatret’s And All the Questionmarks Started to Sing, multimedia installation and performance. Both in the Shanghai Biennale.