OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT Hall A, Hall B, and OCT Loft B10, Enping Road, Overseas Chinese Town, Nanshan, Shenzhen）May 16–Aug 31, 2014
Situated at the center of the exhibition venue of the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, the Research Station is a comfortable reading space specially designed by Sheila Pepe. You stand in the center of it, barefoot, flipping through some literature on the exhibition’s off-site projects; on the adjacent bookshelf are some thirty books related to participatory art and social art interventions. Of three indoor venues at the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, the Research Station also houses documents related to Ahmet Öğüt, Zheng Bo, and others. You could say this colorful woven textile piece is the heart of the exhibition; it is more than a simple spatial installation, symbolizing the nerve center of the entire biennale. Through Pepe’s work, the curator emphasizes the essential connections binding conceptually oriented political aesthetics with an aesthetics of materiality based on artistry. Meanwhile, at the other end of the site, Chen Shaoxiong’s “Ink Media” has been installed at a vantage point high enough to broadcast the artist’s video work throughout the entire exhibition hall, underlining the political tenor of his piece. When you raise your head to watch this animated work on street protests, you are reminded that underlying Joseph Beuys’s concept of “social sculpture”, referred to in the exhibition, there is a layer that is linked to direct democracy.
Though previous curators for the Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale have expanded upon the definition of sculpture, in this eighth Biennale, the curator Marko Daniel still symbolically chose to build his curatorial discourse around the term “social sculpture” as a point of departure in exploring artistic creation in post-participatory art. The reason Daniel’s curatorial gesture can be called “symbolic” is that the curator appears not to have restricted each piece into a dialogue with the theme.
Perhaps the piece that best fits the definition of “participatory art” at the biennale is Qiu Zhijie and Song Zhen’s “The Society—Diankou, Villager Furniture”, in which the artists invited students from China Academy of Art to be “sent down to the countryside”. Fifteen wooden benches placed in front of the Research Station are the physical manifestations of this undertaking; the table belongs to the village committee, while the benches themselves were provided by the “villagers”. The crux of this project was the construction of a space for dialogue between the local officials and the villagers. In the two-way communication organized by the art group between government officials and the villagers, the officials wrote down—in chalk—on the table all the promises they made, while the villagers, with the artists, preserved the sentences as relief carvings as evidence of the art event.
If the above piece is a model example of an art intervention into the realm of reality, then the works situated nearby do not have such distinctive involvement or participation. The title of Meiro Koizumi’s video work “Theatre Dreams of a Beautiful Afternoon” immediately labels the work as one founded outside o reality. The piece is a dual-channel video shot on the subway; the male and female protagonists are seated on the left and right sides of the subway car. The way their gazes keep glancing off each other is somewhat reminiscent of a Japanese television drama, while the audio track intermingles their existential internal monologues. Only when the male protagonist’s quiet weeping gradually turns into an upheaval of loud sobbing do we, on the other side of the screen, realize the extent to which these actors’ actions have taken over the entire subway car. Nearby, Cheng Ran’s multi-channel video installation also emphasizes how artistic techniques can be deployed to attract and then to involve the audience in the narrative of a piece. Worth mentioning is the way the curatorial statement for the biennale makes a shift by replacing “participation” with the term “involvement” in its final paragraph; this subtle distinction constitutes a liberal interpretation of the theme “We Have Never Participated”—when an audience is “involved” in a piece, it is not just “participating” in or “using” the work on the surface.
As the viewer becomes more familiar with the layout of the exhibition, you get the sense that the pieces most in dialogue are scattered throughout the venue. For example, the exhibition’s most introspective piece appears at the end of the long and narrow exhibition Hall B, where Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun have comprehensively laid out their own studio. Meanwhile, in another exhibition space, Jia Chun’s nearly all white narcissus installation also manifests the inclination towards total individualization. To the artist, this space delineated by six panes of glass is completely independent from the outside world. This internal perspective can perhaps find some connection to what lies outside in Younès Rahmoun’s installation wherein a composite timber room is set apart by a set of automatic screen doors designed by Héctor Zamora; isolated and towering above the ground, its dimensions are based on a room in Rahmoun’s own home, and the room serves as a reflection on private spaces. The doors leading to the installation also open towards the holy city of Mecca, which recalls how the spiritual connects the individual and the collective.
My impression of viewers’ vague consensus of the exhibition was that everyone was in search of the meaning of “We Have Never Participated” in the various threads dispersed throughout. In this vein, the title of Li Ming’s piece provides a useful cipher. Through various techniques marked with his personal style, the artist inserts “Nothing Happened Today” into a coherent series of everyday milieux, forging a paradoxical space for reflection. The curator might be attempting to preserve precisely this type of reflective space by giving the Biennale its earworm of a title. “We Have Never Participated” may not directly relate to the pieces on show, nor is participation obviously present in every piece, and yet, as in Li Ming’s self-contradictory pronouncement, juxtaposition happens to be one technique used to question existing systems. In a way, “We Have Never Participated” relies on the audience to fill in the gaps in meaning.
[correction note: an editing error mentioned Pepe as the curator in one instance. This has now been corrected—the curator is, of course, Marko Daniel]