“Reversing Modification”: The Voices of a Hundred Artists—“Keep Genetically Modified Food Far from Us”
Tang Contemporary Art Center (Gate No.2, 798 Art Zone, Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China), Nov 30–Dec 6, 2013
Event Promoters: Cui Cancan, Peng Yu, Sun Yuan, Zhao Bandi
Just as the news reports on art, art also mediatizes our lives.
An article recently appeared in the news about 61 academicians in China who petitioned for the promotion of genetically modified rice. Although this was immediately identified as “fabricated news,” it echoed recent debates between the well-known internet writer Fang Zhouzi and the famous host Cui Yongyuan on the topic of GMOs, as well as findings from the latter’s investigations into GMOs in the United States. At the same time, the GMO debate merged into the torrent of appalling food-safety scandals; the twin spotlights of public concern and media exposure brought the subject to the forefront of everyone’s minds. Whether intentional or not, the short-run exhibition being held at Tang Contemporary deployed a similar strategy: it started with a call for artworks, on the topic of GMOs, on the artist Peng Yu’s weibo. Subsequently, 148 artists and art-related individuals joined in on the “petition-style” event.
Instead of an exhibition, it would be more fitting to call it an event—or the mildest possible form of protest. The show’s main piece is a video work spearheaded by Peng Yu called “Genetic Roulette—The Gamble of Our Lives.” The film uses pre-existing clips from documentaries on GMOs as a foundation, but dubs the voices of many participants over those of the politicians, public figures and narrator, thus creating “genetically modified voices,” [zhuanjiying] a play on “genetically modified organisms” [zhuanjiyin] in Chinese. This punning kind of word play is nothing new in the art world; a similar technique was used in Ai Weiwei’s “Grass Mud Horse Covering the Middle” [a critique of the party and patriotism], and Wu Junyong’s “Chairman Mao” and “Fuck Air Craft” series [the latter a euphemism for masturbation]. Of course, such tongue-in-cheek mockery can also be taken as emphasis on the identity of the work. An entire wall on one side of the projection screen is covered with dozens of posters more or less related to the theme. A small stage sits on the other side, where the band Iron Kite played a song written specially for the project called “Guide to Shopping for Non-GMO Foods” at the show’s opening. There was also a crosstalk performance by “The Survivor” group entitled “Two Hundred Heads.” The stage’s backing board was covered with buzzwords associated with GMOs such as DDT, colitis, diarrhea, hormonal disorders and so forth. The organizers and participants have clearly expressed definite value and moral judgments on the subject of GMOs, but what is most direct and effective is the articulation of a “non-official” perspective—in direct contrast with the “official” stance of the academicians.
Despite the innocence and optimism inherent in the event’s tagline “Keep genetically modified food far from us,” the artists seem only to pay lip service to this theme—whether with “genetically modified organisms” or “genetically modified voices.” Instead, they chose to take a united front on “our” side—dubbed the “immoral majority” by one media source. Contemporary art is more concerned with an event’s effectiveness and the media attention it brings: the entire event was sparked through the media (weibo), and the topic at hand is also a controversial locus of media attention. Though when the event is written up in the media, its nature may well undergo yet another modification and be summarized as “a joint protest by artists against GMOs.” After all, whether voices or organisms are being modified does not matter; the event is a testimony to the on-going mediatization of art.
Essentially, this event was a public service undertaken in the name of art. It is comparable to the focus on environmental issues in Europe and the United States; in China, the debate is not limited to food, but involves a larger clash in the ideological sphere—free debate as an objective in and of itself. The subject is already unimportant; just like the quality of the air we breathe, the status quo cannot be swayed by any individual or group. Rather, such issues seem like a line drawn in the sand, separating people with different opinions into two distinct camps. However, the subjects these two groups disagree on range far beyond this line in the sand. In times like these, art creeps in, relaying messages on somewhat “overdone” topics such as “human rights,” “cultural conflict,” and “geopolitics.” For a certain segment of contemporary artists, the controversy over GMOs presents a rare opportunity to continue their long and antagonistic opposition to the State.