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2013.11.20 Wednesday, 文 /

This article is available only in English.


It began with a simple, impromptu invitation.

The blurred yellow letters announced “Overlapping Reflection,” an apt title for a contemporary art exhibition in the water-town of Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District on the outskirts of Shanghai.  The planning concept was irrefutably irresistible – to “highlight on the symbiosis between artworks and Zhujiajiao local cultural ecology, and bridge the art and public with multi-dimensional dialogue and interaction” (sic).  No further enticement was necessary.  Involving the participation of thirty-four artists in what seemed to be an ideal public space, it was only remiss that the exhibition was scheduled to last a mere six days.

Upon arrival at the picturesque town, which purportedly dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the location of the art proved more challenging than anticipated. The map, which enumerated the sites of the works by the artists, neglected to differentiate between installations and performances.  Thus, after maneuvering through tight alleys thronging with masses of Chinese tourists, the final termini were often empty spaces devoid of the collaborative works that claimed to bring artists together with local residents and foreign tourists.  To be fair, most of the performances had taken place two days earlier; nonetheless, very few remnants were left to hint at the artistic and social interaction that had taken place.   It was regrettable, because traces would have indeed enhanced the cultural ecology and sustained artistic praxis as a public discourse at Zhujiajiao.

The map of the exhibition


Ji Wenyu, “Festivial”, installation, cloth, Dongjing street/Granny’s Teahouse


Chen Hangfeng, “Constructed shadows”, cutout plastic shopping bag, double side glue, bamboo forest, dimension variable, 2013, random locations

陈航峰,《造影》,裁剪后的塑料袋,双面胶,竹林,尺寸可变, 2013, 随机地点

After sifting through the immaterial excess of street kitsch and other tourist souvenirs offered by the vendors in their shops, it was a relief to come across a few artistically-inscribed spaces.  Quietly tucked between two kiosks of hawkers was the minutely floating world of Ji Wenyu. Suspended on thin wires from the ceiling, a mobile platform holds a profusion of tiny sculptures meticulously crafted from cloth. In midst of joyous festivities representing weddings and birthdays, the well-dressed figures are in the act of mingling and composing themselves in groups ready to have their collective presence captured by photographers. Seemingly, we are asked to witness the spectacle of joyous festivals and notice the slippage of meaning that occurs at the intersection of public rituals and private consciousness. Ji’s inquiry is not only timely, but also site-specific. According to the organizers, “The art exhibition is both an art of social practice and long-lost mass culture festival” (sic). Exemplified by the unsteady stage on which the tiny masses congregate, Ji Wenyu’s work critically explores the persistence of an inconstant interstice in his fabricated world of manufactured spectacle.

Walking through a small cafe off the main canal street of Xijing Jie and into the bright sunlit bamboo grove, we encountered the contemplative space created by Chen Hangfeng’s installation; “Constructed shadows” is saturated with the interplay of the organic and inorganic. In a mimetic gesture, carefully-cut black plastic leaves are grafted onto hardy bamboo stalks, concomitantly oscillating in the afternoon breeze. Opposite the bamboo grove, on the ruins of a dilapidated courtyard wall, a landscape painting simultaneously emerges and is submerged to blur the distinction between past and present. Echoing the trope of the natural and artificial, shreds of black plastic are affixed as thick impastos of leaves and blossoms upon the stone canvas. With the slightest stirring of the wind, the synthetic leaves flutter back and forth on the painted branches affixed with standard lace pins — a technique almost jarring in its simplicity. Moreover, the banal pieces of plastic trash bags that would ordinarily be discarded are re-contextualized and given a second lease on life as permanent aesthetic signifiers that can likely outlast even the cement structure of the wall. Within this constructed simulacra, Chen Hangfeng lays bare the interstice where the remembrance of things past is rearticulated with the visual idiom of the present moment.

Inside the Kezhi Garden, across several courtyards and up a remote flight of stairs, there is a large open balcony. Under the expansive canopy of the sky, hulking pieces of what appeared to be foodstuffs were scattered about as if left out to dry. Though there was no text to mark the identity of the artist or the object, there was little doubt that the orange globs were dehydrated pumpkin shards. Stepping gingerly, I picked up a piece, and it instantly became clear why these sculptural objects were carefully strewn about in this remote locale. Constructed entirely from wax, the uniformly large-scale orange slivers were modeled from candle drippings. My chance encounter here was not by happenstance, but the result of a direct pursuit of interactive and relational art. The French curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriade lamented as early as 1998 in Relational Aesthetics that technological communication had the adverse affect of “plunging human contacts into monitored areas that divide the social bond” into different modes. As such, Bourriade believes artistic activity should strive to open up obstructed passages and “connect levels of reality kept apart from one another.” The wax chunks are representative of the fracture when parts are inordinately severed. They lie in seeming waste and isolation. Yet, despite their fragmentation, the ossified and pliable forms nonetheless eloquently describe the collective reality of their phenomenological presence. Perhaps it is in this paradoxical interstice of connectivity and disconnect that we can locate the full expression of relational art that strives to be critical, relevant, and participatory in the public platform of Zhujiajiao, and elsewhere.