Stephanie Tasch on Mon, 10 May 1999 14:28:42 +0200 (CEST)

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By Stephanie Tasch (Shanghai)

Watching the development of Chinese contemporary art is watching art
history in the making. A single exhibition can alter our perception of
what this art is about at present, notwithstanding the size, duration or
accessibility of the event. Take ART FOR SALE. Talked about for months in
advance, the show finally opened to an enthusiastic crowd in a shopping
mall on Shanghai's busy Huai Hai Zhong Lu on April 10th. Instead of
running for an unprecendented two weeks, the show closed after only three
days. An article in Shanghai's Xinmin Zhoukan (Nr. 16, 19.4.1999)
mentioned administrative problems as the reason for the early closure.
According to the author, the artists had decided to shut down the
exhibition themselves after it had been pointed out to them that they had
failed to apply for the necessary permissions.

Taking an avantgarde art show into the heart of Shanghai's consumer
culture was to turn the relationship between art and public on its head.
Instead of retreating into either underground art venues or
institutionalized spaces which remain essentially passive localities
accessible only for those already in the know, ART FOR SALE's organizers
wanted to create an active space that adressed its audience head-on. This
was strictly not an exhibition in and for the ivory tower but a concept
for the glitzy world of commerce, completely synchronized with shopping
mall routine: Free access, convenient opening hours, central location and
guaranteed advertising space for sponsors. The concept was as radical as
it was idealistic. In retrospect, ART FOR SALE provided far more food for
thought than its placative title suggests. Moving beyond the excitement of
the opening and the disappointment of its early closure, a broad range of
issues comes into clearer focus.

* Art as Commodity *

Entering Shanghai Square shopping mall, the visitor found him- or herself
in a supermarket, complete with shelves, cashier and shop assistants. The
products on display, however, T-Shirts, magazines, videos, sweets,
household items, toys and calendars, were works of art, created
specifically for the show. ART FOR SALE invited about two dozen artists
from all over China to produce an object to be sold during the show, and
they responded with enthusiasm.

The exhibition concept stressed the idea of art as commodity.
Consequently, the multiple art objects created for the supermarket as
'products', were to be neither signed, dated nor numbered. Packaged and
titled like brand-name consumer goods, their product status should have
dominated their status as works of art. Even before ART FOR SALE opened,
however, there was palpable excitement about certain products. Within
hours of the opening, those works sold out and immediately achieved the
status of highly sought-after collectibles. While this can be read as
having successfully marketed a new product, it also involuntarily stressed
their importance as works of art. There are various reasons for success:
One was certainly the cachet of an artistís name, working like a
successful brand name in itself. One example for this mechanism was Shi
Yong's 'Made in China - Welcome to Shanghai', a doll-sized model of his
ideal citizen of this city on the move which gives his conceptual work a
three-dimensional form. The other was wit. There were plenty of good
ideas, but the closer the art product mimicked a real one, satirizing the
cult of the famous brand, the more successful they were, triggering our
desire for the well-marketed product. This dependency on the part of the
consumer/buyer was brilliantly exposed in Chen Shao Xiong's work
'Commodity (Instruction Manual) Art Explanation' (and this reviewer is
looking forward to seeing the work exhibited again, but this time on a
larger scale) that transformed our received opinions about the function of
certain products into the realm of the absurd. Finally, there was
packaging. Having been asked to produce an attractively labelled and
packaged item, not all the artists were up to the challenge. The
exhibition was actually critized in one of the Shanghai newspapers for
having met neither the aesthetic nor the marketing standards of today's
consumer culture, and was therefore said to have failed its conceptual
goal. While this might be true in some cases, in others it even created a
kind of camp appeal to the objects that made them attractive exactly
because of their tackiness. The catalogue, for example, produces a perfect
imitation of the visual language of supermarket flyers in its first half,
advertising the art products. In the second half, its layout then calms
down to a sophisticated lay-out consistent with any conventional
exhibition catalogue.

* The Ugly*

Moving on, the visitor entered the installation space. Here, ART FOR SALE
presented works of art that wanted to be seen as such. Not for sale, not
to be touched, they were large-scale explorations of our daily lives and
the relationship between art and commerce. Fewer works were on view, by
some of the artists represented in the supermarket, creating a dialogue
between the art for sale and the art for viewing. This link between the
two parts of the exhibition was further emphasized by Song Dongís
exhibition guide performance explaining individual works.

While some of the roughly 1.200 visitors during the three days might have
been confused by the use of media such as performance (which should have
been replaced by video footage after the opening), video, installations or
photography, others might have been downright offended. ART FOR SALE
doubtlessly presented some perplexing works of art and some that were
clearly testing artís (and the audience's) limits. Beginning with the
shock appeal of bottled human brain (Zhu Yu, 'Basics of total knowledge')
in the supermarket, the show's more sensational side culminated in Luo Zi
Dan's untitled performance involving him, an assistant and a sho-window
mannequin. His red-lit, beer-swigging display of male dominance and female
subservience, illustrating the essentially mercantile relations between
the sexes, was neither for the faint of heart nor the feministically or
even humanistically inclined. Decidedly unsubtle and not always
successful, those exhibits highlight the importance of the category of the
ugly/offensive in the aesthetic discourse and the conscious decision on
the part of the artist to overstep conventional boundaries of good taste
or the aesthetic limits of the art work as a valid artistic strategy.

* The Beautiful *

Liu Wei's environment with three bejewelled piglets in a shabby room, 'You
are beautiful' made fun of our obsession with beauty and expensive status
symbols. Xu Zhen confronted the visitors in a tiny room with odours 'From
inside the body', a video installation that combined the formally sleek
with the slightly nauseating. Both made their point in a drastic, yet
humourous way. However, there was a surprisingly large amount of works
dealing with various aspects of our consumer culture which dared to be
aesthetically pleasing or even beautiful. While ugliness and agression
tend to have the advantage of being regarded as authentic and critical by
the sheer force of the negative argument, beauty in form and style is
easily regarded as being affirmative and superficial. ART FOR SALE managed
to disprove both points of view. Looking at Yang Zhen Zhong's video
installation 'The face of Shanghai', the visitor was presented with a
visual metaphor of Shanghaiís rapid speed and sometimes confusing movement
that was visually precise as well as poetic. It was also a lesson in
culturally-determined perception. Yang filmed the busy streets of Shanghai
through a mask hanging in front of the lense, obstructing the full view of
the scene. In projecting the image through a large bowl of water onto the
ceiling, with the vibrations from the soundtrack disturbing the surface of
the water which in turn disrupts the images projected, he evokes the
imagery of a pond with its surface rippled by a breeze. At the same time,
this image of tranquility serves to visualize the buzz of the metropolis.
For a Western viewer, the mask carries connotations of sentimental kitsch
connected with the city of Venice, thereby blurring Yang's elegant
metaphor. In another installation piece, Hu Jie Ming created in what
looked and sounded like a work about night-life. A baby grand piano was
playing what sounded like bar music, a small monitor showed a musical
score with an EKG pattern, a larger monitor, facing the piano, a close-up
of a wired-up male torso. The cool bar piece was actually the EKG of a man
masturbating, transcribed into and performed as music. Instead of being
vulgar and aggressive, '(Related to Happiness)' had the sleekness of
today's consumer world, and its emotional emptiness. Alexander Brandt's
installation 'The making of a perfect relationship' recreated a girl's
room filled with dream-images of beautiful men and women and a marriage
made in haven. On the television, a video shows how two people try to
breathe life into the words of a German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. He
defined love as the point where 'two lonelinesses meet and greet and touch
each other', creating a bitter-sweet contrast to the candy-store
prettiness of the room.

* The Feminine Pretty? *

Some might consider Alexander Brandt's work as highly problematic. Not
only does a Western male impersonate an Asian woman in his evocation of
the room, he is also his own main actor in 'The making of a perfect
relationship', a role automatically loaded with questions not only of
gender relations but also of race. The artist is sensitive to these issues
made even more poignant by the concrete environment, Shanghai. Finding a
man dealing with (partly) feminist issues, what about the women in the
show? Fortunately, the ratio of women artists in ART FOR SALE was not so
bad. Surprisingly, there was no work by a woman dealing with a
specifically feminist issue. Instead, there works like 'Super Image' by Xu
Xiao Yu or Kan Xuan's 'EH!' video installation which did not immediately
give away the artistís gender. Xu, a photographer, presented her research
into the use of the image of the American flag in Chinese everyday-life
and on products made in China for export. Kan Xuan shouting to herself in
a Shanghai metro tunnel, displayed in two monitors facing each other
through a glass panel, thereby projecting the image endlessly back and
forth, again highlighted one of ART FOR SALE's recurring themes, the
loneliness of the individual in contemporary society. But what to make of
Ni Junís and Liang Yue's contributions? Where some of the male
participants went for all-out provocation, some of the female artists
opted for what seemed to be stereotypically feminine works of art. Ni Jun
created a glass bassin for goldfish, with a nest of steel wool with an egg
in the centre, illuminated by a white light bulb. The installation looked
nice but lacked the precision and poignancy of her earlier performance,
'Gift' (1998). Here, the combination of glass, flowers, silk ribbons and
her own naked body conveyed an eerie comment on female roles. Liang Yue
also used her body in 'Falling Asleep', a dream-like communication with a
tree, white lengths of fabric winding and unwinding but never quite coming
together as a visual metaphor.

ART FOR SALE provided an excellent overview of one aspect of Chinese
contemporary art today. It showed a lot of young, sometimes very raw art
along with more mature works. What makes it stand out as an exhibition
despite some flaws, however, is the use of an overall concept. Most of the
artists rose to the challenge to create works that actually dealt with the
issues raised by the organizers and presented some very original comments
and solutions.

It also attracted the attention of the Shanghai papers. Xinmin Wanbao ran
a short review on April 13th, followed by a longer and very critical
article in Wen Hui Bao on April 14th. The authors of both texts emphasized
the sensational and shocking elements of the show, Xinmin Wanbao ran a
photograph of Zhu Yu's product, the bottled brain. This was also
illustrated in the exhibition review in the weekly Xinmin Zhoukan,
mentioned before. Here, the author tried to present a more balanced and
less polemic picture of ART FOR SALE, giving room to statements by the
artists, visitors of the exhibition and some Shanghai art experts. By
introducing the controversial show to the readership of this influential
paper and making the organisers' aims and motives more transparent for a
general audience, Xinmin Zhoukan became an important mediator between ART
FOR SALE's attempt to engage the public and the public itself.

ART FOR SALE was organized by Xhu Zhen (Shanghai), Yang Zhen Zhong
(Hangzhou) and Alexander Brandt (Germany).

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