Mr. Wang, who asks not to use his first name, wandered along Shanghai's historic Bund the other day. Perfectly normal, yes, except he wasn't wearing a thing—and nobody was paying attention. That everyone ignored him infuriated Mr. Wang, for he was one of China's fledgling crop of performance artists. What's the point of performing if no one watches?
The Shanghai Biennale, which kicked off late last month and runs through Jan. 20, 2003, isn't suffering the same fate. This is the fourth hosting of the festival, and it's finally getting top billing from the international art community. This year's exhibition, housed in the city's recently refurbished Shanghai Art Museum at 325 Nanjing Xi Road, has as a theme "urban creation." And on display are the works of artists both delighted and disturbed by a rapidly changing metropolitan landscape. Among the star pieces are a playhouse-size structure made of plastic Coca-Cola bottles and designed by renowned Japanese architect Shigeru Ban; a taxi deconstructed by Thailand's Navin Rawanchaikul and fashioned into furniture; and a mobile made of pieces of trash—a Styrofoam takeout box, a plastic bag, netting that's used to protect fruit—whose dreamy shadows are projected onto a blue-tinged wall by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.
The creations of local artists are also well represented, among them Xiang Liqing's photomontage of crowded buildings piled atop one another and Xu Bing's airy bird calligraphy formed out of colored plexiglass. Then there is the dose of realism presented by Liu Dahong's ironic depictions of modern Shanghainese scenes—from folks lining up for visas at foreign consulates to corrupt officials committing suicide when they're caught embezzling money to spoil their lovers.
The interesting pieces aren't just relegated to the confines of the museum; several worthwhile satellite shows are attracting attention on their own. Many of the funkiest exhibits are concentrated in the northeastern warehouse district, a ramshackle neighborhood of old godowns along Suzhou Creek, where artists have established a thriving colony. (Many of these warehouses will be demolished in coming months to make way for more space-efficient high-rises). Stop by the DDM Warehouse at 713 Dongda Ming Road, where the eclectic exhibits include real, albeit dead, cows and sheep inflated like giant beach balls and neatly planted rows of garlic that are presumably supposed to represent something deeper than, uh, neatly planted rows of garlic.
Just about everything is for sale in China, and that includes art. Check out the new "art street" on Taikang Road, where contemporary studios and more traditional galleries vie for customers. The highlights include Deke Erh's Studio, which is run by a local photographer who has made it his mission to record hundreds of historic buildings before they are torn down, and the nearby Hands in Clay Pottery Studio, where local university students show off their designs. At most of these galleries, foreigners tend to be the main patrons but locals are beginning to show interest in China's contemporary offerings. Still, prices remain far lower than those in Hong Kong, London or New York City.
By Bryan Walsh/Guangzhou
The photo is excruciating. In Feng Feng's Shin Brace, an exhibit at the First Guangzhou Triennial, a photograph of a human leg—scaled up to fill an entire wall—is shown wrapped in a wicked metal apparatus that seems part medical, part torture device. Steel barbs pierce traumatized skin in a scarring kiss. I look at the photo until I can't look anymore, which isn't long. Opposite Shin Brace is Feng Mengbo's Ah Q , an installation featuring two computers running the ultraviolent video game Quake III on a pair of wide screens. A young Chinese boy, who never knew experimental art could be this fun, plays on one keyboard. I sit down at the other console, seeking relief from the photo. He proceeds to repeatedly slaughter my character. Electronic screams echo. Art is pain.
The juxtaposition between reality and fiction is emblematic of the spirit of the First Guangzhou Triennial. This innovative retrospective of recent experimental Chinese art throws a spotlight on compositions that are witty, even self-mocking, with an undercurrent of disquiet. The packed exhibition, titled "Reinterpretation: a Decade of Experimental Chinese Art (1990-2000)," runs through Jan. 19. It features 166 works by 135 Chinese artists in media that range from paint to sculpture to video recordings of models dressed up as bathroom tiles. Walking the exhibition's three floors is like visiting a classroom of precocious children: each energetic piece insists on your attention. If they aren't as liberated as their Western counterparts, Chinese experimental artists are clearly in the vanguard of fun.
The games begin outside the handsome Guangdong Museum of Art at 38 Yanyu Lu, Ersha Island, where large, red letters that read IN GOD WE TRUST are poised above sculptor Wang Guangyi's bulky, socialist-realist statues of heroic workers that emerge out of the ground like ghosts from the Cultural Revolution. Sincerity jousts with irony, old communist values with new China's avarice. Greed, of course, has the upper hand; many of the works at the exhibition exude ambivalence toward the country's rampant materialism and unchecked urban growth. Liang Juhui's Floating Transported uses video projection to simulate living in China's cramped, anonymous cities, while the desolate black-and-white photos of artist Rong Rong's Ruin Series document the remains of demolished Beijing neighborhoods. Xu Bing's delightful Guangdong Wild Zebra Herd features four donkeys, alive if bedraggled, chewing grass outside the museum; the artist painted them to look like zebras after reading a story about inventive Chinese villagers who did the same in hopes of drawing tourist money.
Greed and growth are easy targets, and they are attacked with such zeal that it's possible to overlook the heavy hand of artistic censorship in China. It's not quite invisible, however. While a few works reference the Sino-Japanese War, nothing at the exhibition addresses recent traumas, events still imbued with fresh political sensitivity. An installation inspired by last year's U.S. spy plane incident off Hainan Island was scrapped right before the exhibition was set to open, without explanation by authorities. The government is fine with history, so long as it's kept in the past.
Still, Chinese artists have learned to speak loudly in whispers. One of the Triennial's best exhibits couches its criticism in the gentlest terms. Chen Shaofeng journeyed to a rural village in Hubei province and videotaped himself painting portraits of the villagers, who in turn drew pictures of Chen. The result is the winning Dialogues with the Peasants of Tiangongsi, a wall-size series of paired oil paintings. Chen makes his untutored peasants, some of whom prove to be adept artists, "equal participants in my work." It's a welcome dignity for a voiceless people.
For sheer chutzpah, nothing can top the final exhibit, Zhang Hongtu's Studs. A big, red door, slyly reminiscent of the crimson gates that once kept the Forbidden City forbidden and now protect the Party leadership compound. But in Zhang's work, the door's elaborate iron studs have become phallic pipes frozen in, as the artist delicately puts it, "states of inadequate erection." So much for vigorous leadership. But if the First Guangzhou Triennial is any indication, China's experimental art scene is more virile than ever.