This review is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 3 (Spring 2016)
“Adrift: He/She Comes From Shanghai”
OCAT, Shenzhen, January 16, 2016 – February 28, 2016
Cheng Ran’s video work “Before Falling Asleep Part 1: The River and The Pond” (2013) begins with a typical urban scene—streaming crowds and traffic, a medley of buildings new and old—and then cuts to a monologue by one person, followed by another by someone else. In accented English, both retell the bedtime fable “The River and The Pond”. One says lines for “the river” and the other those of “the pond.” The river and the pond are taken as metaphors for one’s condition: should one stay put at home, or leave and become “adrift?”
A state of mobility might simultaneously encompass the characteristics of the pond and the river: seeking stability as well as excitement. In between, various emotions might arise. These certainly vary from person to person, and sometimes it is difficult even for the same person to decipher whether his or her feelings and moods relate more closely to being away from home or to being in a new place. In the exhibition, Trevor Yeung uses an empty fishbowl with bubbling sounds and wavering lights to hint at a sense of security in attempting to exclude oneself from the outside world; Li Liao films himself walking backwards from his residence to Shenzhen’s famous theme park Window of the World while taking selfies with his cellphone, suggesting a stance of simultaneous obedience and refusal. Cheng Ran’s sound installation “HIT-OR-MISS-IST” (2013) lays out several beautiful and exotic rugs on the floor. A novel record player at the center of the exhibition plays a vinyl of sound recordings from the fields, with the vinyl cover hung on the wall next to it. The cover is framed, and the frame’s glass panel reflects Li Liao’s video playing on the opposite wall. At this point, the dim space seems about to create an intimate narrative atmosphere—whether it be the bedtime fable, the selfie videos, or the aquarium running without any fish—together these narrate a constellation of complex emotions which are explained by the curatorial team as the state of being “adrift.” In fact, this is as difficult to verify as truth itself. Those who have moved away from their hometowns might not be able tell what would have happened otherwise (and likewise for those who stayed behind). Of course, the differences between places only become more obvious after an encounter with the unfamiliar; the familiar grows less familiar as one grows accustomed to what is new. This also has to do with memory and imagination. One thing is certain: the changes the migrant/émigré undergoes might allow for something like being simultaneously at home and elsewhere. Amid this contrast, pre-existing ideas might find stimulation and renewal.
“Adrift: He/She Comes From Shanghai”, co-curated by Chen Li, Qu Chang and Zeng Wenqi, aims to discuss the gap between people’s positive expectations of migration and the harshness of reality. The team took the city of Shenzhen as the larger context, and intentionally chose artworks by several artists from the Pearl River Delta. However, the works included in the exhibition did not actually focus on migrant communities, and neither did they tackle Shenzhen site-specifically. In his work “Case No.11. Talsinki” (2015), the Estonian artist Karel Koplimets forges a direct comparison between scenes of “going out” and “coming home,” as well as parallels between recordings of real and fabricated happenings. The work is comprised of a double-sided video projection and a photography installation. The width of the two projections matches that of the harbor tunnel filmed in the video: on one side we see people taking the ferry to go home, and on the other side we see those returning from shopping with various packages and bags. There is a photograph of a boat in the photography installation; smoke ejects from the sides and makes the boat look as if it were navigating clouds. This reminds one of the artist Christoph Schwarz’s video work “Supercargo”, which resulted from his solo journey on a cargo ship from Luxemburg to Shanghai during the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
In the furthest corner of the exhibition room hung painting-like photographs of varying scales. The Hong Kong photographer Lau Wai re-shot her own new and old family photos for the series Album. The faded yellow hue alludes to memory, and the images become abstracted as the artist shot only parts of each family photo. Seen in light of the fact that Lau Wai’s family migrated from Mainland China to Hong Kong, these photographs carry prominent markings of time. For the artist, specific relationships between people or what actually happened are no longer as important; her interest lies in the condition of constant change.
Imitating a karaoke screen, Zheng Bo’s installation “Sing for Her” plays his recording of a chorus of Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. This is the only piece of participatory art—or, to borrow Zheng’s own definition, “new public art”—in the entire exhibition. A standing microphone is placed before the video screen, where the viewer can sing along to the subtitled lyrics. Those who have been to Hong Kong during weekends might recall the few public areas in the city and even pedestrian overpasses filled with Filipino domestic workers on their day off—one might also recall news reports of these domestic workers suffering cruel treatment by their employers, also echoing similar living conditions for other lower-class migrant workers. A reading section is set up next to this work. On the bookshelf, a range of theoretical and, at times, fake books about migration is available for the viewer to browse through. Another screen plays a promotional video for Shenzhen City. We see the young city portrayed as an epitome of the China Dream through picturesque and grandiose imagery.
This small yet lovely exhibition provides a reflexive space. Here, the viewer may reminisce about and examine the sense of home that they carry with them, as well as observe and experience a life adrift. Yet as is commonly a problem with thematic group exhibitions, each artist’s work becomes disassociated with his or her overall creative oeuvre, perhaps weakening the work’s otherwise original strength.
I myself recently migrated from Shanghai to Shenzhen, making topics related to migration quite timely; but like its title, this exhibition came across as a lighthearted poetic and romantic arrangement rather than something that could expand on or deepen consideration of issues such as migration, urbanization and attendant new and old identities. In “Moved, Mutated, and Disturbed Identities”, a 2010 exhibition and panel discussion co-curated by Biljana Ciric and Fabienne Bernardini, the Taiwanese curator and scholar Manray Hsu used “global citizenship in formation” as a topic through which to discuss the “glocal.”. “Adrift: He/She Comes From Shanghai”, on the other hand, did not clearly reflect this potentially crucial context. There are numerous engaging instances of identity fluctuation while adrift, from Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley, to the story of how the 23-year-old Algerian-French boy Frédéric Bourdin pretended to be the lost son of an American family. That the exhibition assembles different works could perhaps show the curatorial team’s critical underscoring of romanticized emigrant fantasies, yet it touches only slightly and romantically upon the undoubted roughness of a migrant life.