Thursday, October 16, 2008

Shanghai Biennale

I think the 7th Shanghai biennale is an example of contemporary propaganda. The art world seems to be just another vehicle for the government to put on a modern face, leaving the biennale feeling more like a façade than a truly revolutionary example of new art. It seems as if people try so hard to show how different things are, post-cultural revolution, and how free and open times are- and of course this is true in many ways comparatively- but I think it is actually more modernism rather than soviet realism being used to get the same goals, to make people –the world- see and believe what the state wants them to; to believe in a specific, calculated, China.
The title of the show is “Trans local motion”, focusing on the migration of people to –and the relationship between- villages, cities, and the larger international world. The Theme in general was a very safe choice that, manipulated correctly, could show the brilliant achievements and steps forward taken by China, and particularly Shanghai, while pretending to, slightly, acknowledge some of the more negative aspects. Pieces tried to be controversial and provocative but upon further examination, failed to accomplish this. I am not saying that the artists aren’t capable of expressing these ideas, but that there is still a great deal of censorship going on, and that really this exhibit wasn’t a showcase for radical art but one to show the world how cultured China is, how capable it is to compete in the realm of high art. To comply with the government, the sponsors of the show, the artists probably had to make their work more commercially accessible and less controversial to even get the opportunity to be shown. Yue Minjun’s Colorful Running Dinosaurs feels like such a work to me. Visitors are impressed by the overwhelming scale of his pieces and their shiny, colorful paint jobs. They then are too distracted and concerned with taking photographs with the dinosaurs to really consider a deeper meaning to the work. While the accompanying information goes on about how this relates to industrialization and how we must be careful, the impression I got was a little more superficial then that. But of course, at the end of the day, all those people will go and tell their friends how cool and massive the installation was, and the show will get more and more visitors – and more money and international recognition.
I was interested in Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s work Monument of Sugar. Blocks of sugar laid out on the floor of the gallery where there to provoke the questioning of borders and regulations. European exported sugar can’t cross back into Europe and through different borders but by labeling the bricks as ‘art’ they were permitted. This brings about the idea of border control between nations and areas within nations as well as the effects of labeling. Like transporting sugar, migration within China from rural areas into cities is technically illegal but because rural people are so determined to make a better life for them and their families and the people in the cities are happy to employ someone other than themselves to do menial work, it happens all the time. Even this inclusion was safe because while recognizing that migration exists, it doesn’t comment much beyond that. It is an observation of the flow and regulation of populations and goods without delving in deeper towards potentially subversive messages.
All in all, many people seem to buy into the show and its theme. The works either seem deep and poignant, or the viewers don’t even care and are more concerned with taking pictures to show they were there. To me, it is yet another piece of propaganda posing as a Shanghai’s art scene. I would like to see these artist’s full potential acted out in a place where there truly is freedom of expression, to see what they actually think and feel away from the watchful eyes of the communist party.

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