Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Chris Gill review of eArts Festival in Creative Review

Sprawling over a city of 20 millions Shanghai E Arts Festival took art
to the masses in a brave experiment with new technologies and new
environments, with 150 international and local artists showing works.
Cleverly picking the Autumn, the best season to be in Shanghai, with
little rain, snow or tropical heat, the organizers took the arts
outside, into the parks, rivers, squares and shopping centers.

With their team like structures, new media artists in some ways are
reminiscent of traveling bands of DJs, visiting various remote and
interesting places on a shoe string, having various rock and roll
experiences en route and in situ.

The opening ceremony was a huge ceremony held on a temporary wharf
built jutting into a river in Pudong New District, with massive
screens featuring artists works. At the same time central Xujiahui,
one of the city's top shopping areas, saw its neon signage taken over
by artworks, akin to Time Square being given over to artists for a few

Highlights of what I saw were Christian Marclay's screenplay,
performed in the open air venue at Xuhui Park. The screenplay was
interpreted by three different sets of sound artists, Elliot Sharp,
Top Floor Circus and Ben Houge. Of the three, local punk band Top
Floor Circus stood out with their fascinating interpretation of
Marclay's visuals in a series of Chinese songs, riffs and sound bites,
with the bands entertaining performance proving a real crowd pleaser.

Shanghai E Arts Festival has become a phenomena in itself, with its
multidisciplinary multi platform, multi venue showing of local and
international artworks, here in the world's largest communist
entreport. Predominantly funded and supported under the auspices of
the Propaganda Bureau of Shanghai Communist Party Central Committee,
it is interesting how the approach differs from Beijing's more
dogmatic, nationalist stance when organizing similar large events.

Historically Shanghai is a more international city, and the common
citizenry are more tolerant and open minded towards and interested in
arts and culture projects. In practice Shanghai tends to be the
country's window on the world, while Beijing deals with China's
domestic, internal issues. So large crowds of workers, families and
your usual crowd of everyday people attended external performances en
masse, tolerantly sitting through hours of electronic beeps, squeals,
extended feedback and eyeball blistering visuals. Missing was any
spirit of the nascent nationalism that tends to prevail in Beijing.
During the Olympics Shanghai was instructed to keep a low profile, but
now that the games are over the city has the green light to extol its

Highlighting Shanghai's move towards the avant guarde, the sad,
extremely dark, performance by Aaajiao was attended by a crowd of
several hundred people who live in the nearby community, including
migrant workers, grannies, casual park visitors, and others. When the
two dancers simulated a fight the crowd got excited, some even
reenacting the fight scene. Visually the experience seemed more about
watching the crowds reaction to the fight than watching the work
itself, which was spooky. The work seemed to be a Chinese remake of
the Japanese film 'the ring' or perhaps Macbeth, with the female
protagonists torturing each other to a spacey electronic backdrop
accompanied by beeps and groans from the sound artists.

The previous well received edition of E Arts was in several well
established local art museums and venues, but this year organizers
tasked themselves to break the mold even further, taking exhibitions
and performances out amongst the people, with 3 centers in outdoor
spaces, choosing Shanghai's districts of Xuhui, Yangpu and Pudong (for
Londoners think Oxford Circus Battersea and Canary Wharf). Static
venues, such as the Museum of Science and Technology, were also used.

In the Science Museum the installations were all extremely strong work
by a mixed group of local and international artists. The 3D work by
Jean Michel Bruyer "La Dispersion du fils" and the 3D work
"Place-Hampi" by a group of foreign artists led by Jeffrey Shaw,
proved most successful, with the prefect mix of interactivity and art
that Shanghai crowds love. And one local journalist who spent half an
hour with the installations by Ulf Langheinrich told me she felt she
was having hallucinations afterwards.

In some ways this is seen as a dry run for the Shanghai World Expo in
2010, on which the Shanghai government will spend billions of dollars
on, and hopes to create quite a splash internationally. The World Expo
will last six months, with thousands of events planned. "The World
Expo will be the economic and cultural version of the Olympics," one
government official told me. For E Arts the artists were housed in
part in purpose built complexes, think Olympic villages for artists,
one dorm had its own beer hall that was built in only a week. For some
of the more remote events students were bused in by the government to
help create a crowd.
So within these interesting and unique parameters new media artists
did their thing, but due to the sprawling nature of the events with
dozens of events daily at widely diverse locations it was impossible
to attend them all, or even a small part of them.
Preparation and communication seemed key in what works proved
successful, while others seemed swamped or overcome by the scale,
technical issues and cultural misunderstandings.
The majority of the foreign artists appeared old hands, familiar with
the technical issues facing new media, and were able to smoothly deal
with issues such as lack of equipment, or sub standard equipment, they
tuned their work to meet the specific locations, and seamlessly
provided functioning versions to the large crowds. Many of the younger
artists' work appeared weaker, struggling to cope with the scale of
the performances, probably what had seemed cool in their bedrooms or
studios didn't translate immediately to stadium scale, and they lacked
the technical support so vital in new media work. Hopefully the
experience this year will help them for future works, especially the
knowledge gained by cooperating with the more seasoned operators who
flew in from Europe, Japan and the US.

It being E Arts, many of the performances and works have now become
circulated online – a good starting point is and
Chinese critic Brian Lin's site which
has links to many performance videos.

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