From CHIC to CHINA (in less then 48 hours…)

by patti

Immediately following the breakdown of The Commercial Center in Paris at the end of last month, Halfslant hit the road for three weeks in CHINA. In our next few posts we will share with you some of our initial impressions and revelatory experiences from The Shanghai Biennale, The World Expo, as well as take a look at ceramics from the Shanghai Art Museum, the wonderful Suzhou Museum by architect Ieoh Ming Pei, an actually conceptual concept store in Guangzhou, the ancient Hakka earth buildings in Fujian province and ruminations on the cultural vacuum of Hong Kong.  Hope you enjoy our reflections on these fascinating places and will share your thoughts with us in the comments on twitter or facebook.

On our first day in Shanghai, strolling around People’s Park we happened upon the Shanghai Biennale. We were actually looking for the Shanghai Art Museum, but the sinister merry-go-round in front of this unassuming building caught our attention. Coming from Paris, where merry-go-rounds are everywhere, this hellish take on one was instantly intriguing. The shiny black horses had oil spouts and hideous fangs for heads, with logos of major oil companies decorating the carousel.

Wang Mai, China Oil Monsters

Wang Mai, China Oil Monsters

Upon entering the building we learned about the Biennale and its simple yet interesting theme: Rehearsal.   Highlighted here are some of the works that seemed to most powerfully engage this idea.

Many of the installations had performative and time sensitive elements, so unfortunately we could not see them all.   We were lucky enough to catch And all the Questionmarks Started to Sing by Verdensteatret, where in one corner sat a row of people with computers controlling what seemed to be light and sound.  The bulk of the space was occupied by slightly moving mechanical objects (think steam punk meets a po-mo circus) quite difficult to place in their function: wind chimes that told time? Bicycle wheel projectors? Light and music-box mobiles? Only when the performers began and the technicians activated the machinery did the whole space become illuminated and full of sound and strange contrasting activities.  One machine passed a spotlight through a magnifying glass and onto old negatives of a building, which were then projected onto a wall casting wonderful shadows of other machines and performers.  One man started speaking loudly in some unknown language; another performer began to whistle until the roaring sound of a train filled the room.  We stood fixated on the spellbinding and unsettling activities for a longtime, and soon the audience was faced with the not so easy task of trying to take in all the different aspects of the piece at once.

And all the Question Marks Started to Sing

Verdensteatret, Norway and All the Question Marks Started to Sing

Upon entering  Qui’s Notes on Lantern Festival, the standout installation from the biennale, you immediately got the sense that you were interrupting something, that an event was about to, or had just taken place.  A wonderfully flowing, yet chaotic, wall mural taken from the scenes of a famous scroll painting with corresponding objects filled the space. Each of these objects was a replica of something from the scroll reinterpreted by the artists, who it seemed would walk in at any moment. Keys were scattered in piles on the ground, shoes left in corners, wrappers and tools created paths between works. At given times the objects were brought to life by the artists, but unfortunately not while we were there, although small screens showed each tool in action. Each one was at once very simple in its construction, yet impressive in its scale. A large log with pages cut out of it, a circular astrological chart in which a manually rolled stone simultaneously imprinted and erased constellations in white sand, a tree with buckets and piping systems for water, and a large wooden music box with several different metal plates leaning against the wall. Each object incited a deep curiosity and desire for further interaction, and managed to bridge historical Chinese arts with the contemporary.

Unlike many of the other installations which felt like rehearsals in some way, this one really was; with events taking place that were not perfect, but instead demonstrations of potential activities.

Qui's Notes on Lantern FestivalQui Zhijie, China Qui's Notes on Lantern FestivalQui’s Notes on Lantern Festival

Malleon’s space full of puppets, furniture, paintings and toys didn’t really interest us at first glance. It wasn’t until after we found out that they had in fact moved their entire photographic studio into the space, and that people were actually invited to interact with the objects and create their own dramas, that the chaos of the space really took on meaning. That said, I enjoy this unfinished aspect as it fit in quite nicely with the idea of rehearsal and of being confronted with a photo studio not in use, rather than a photo studio presenting its works.

Malleon, China Malleon’s Studio Installation

Guan Wei melds Chinese Scroll painting with the imagery of the aggressive development of the Chinese countryside by placing ghost-like architectural drawings on top of pristine inked landscapes.  Both the presentation of the scroll and the wall painting above it create the illusion that we are in a more conventional historical museum exhibit.

Guan  Wei , China Mapocalyopse and New Development

Honestly, our first reaction to the Sosolimited video piece was ‘Oh god, another video installation?’, but this one fulfilled the one criteria that is most enjoyable and most rare – interactivity.  As you change the channel on the TV, the information displayed also changes. From the catalogue, “Sosolimited created a software that ‘watches’ television. In real time, our software digitizes the video, audio and closed captioning of the television signal. It processes, transforms, and recombines the pieces and displays them in the span of milliseconds.” The result is a fascinating translation of the images, sounds, words and even emotions taking place on screen into dynamic and beautiful graphs, maps and constantly changing illustrations of the raw live data being fed in and spewed back out.

(To view some nice photos of the piece check out the Sosolimited website.)

Finally, the truly arresting installation by Yang Fudong, which broke a scene from a film down into many different sections featuring different angles, timings and included rehearsal shots with the final shots so that all parts of the scene became part of the final piece.  To further flesh it out, here is the passage about the piece from the catalogue, “The Fifth Night No. 1 and The Fifth Night No. 2 were shot at the same time. The first one is the so-called ‘feature film’, while the latter is a ‘rehearsal’. When rehearsal becomes the core of a movie, the relationship between the film and the reality is no longer important; the film serves as a medium and a site, and it is both a part of the rehearsal and the outside of it.”

And here’s some shiny Shanghai by night…

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