In front of the Shanghai Art Museum on busy Nanjing Lu, hot pink banners advertise the Sixth Shanghai Biennale, Sept. 5-Nov. 5, 2006, which has the theme of "Hyper Design." Every day, mobs of Chinese and foreign tourists, students, businessmen and families stream into the five-story brick building to view some 128 pieces by 94 artists from 23 countries, in a show overseen by Shanghai Art Museum deputy director Zhang Qing and a team of six curators hailing from China, Italy, the United States, Korea and the United Kingdom. With the surging global demand for Chinese contemporary art, the Shanghai Biennale is more important than ever to the very idea of contemporary art in this city.
Design is an essentially egalitarian endeavor, accommodating and forgiving. At its simplest, design is all about functionality and applied art, a concept that has special resonance in a communist country. At its broadest, design is a component of public policy, and seeks to bring an esthetic sensibility to the messiness of human industry. At its grandest, the notion of design conjures a utopia of safe streets, uplifting graphics and elegant and efficient living.
And "hyper?" Shanghai is the poster child for urban excess, an esthetically manic patchwork of overstimulated development and urban activity -- full of "fruitful contradictions," in the words of one of the Biennial’s curators, Gianfranco Maraniello. So it’s no wonder that the event has garnered such a good response from Shanghai natives, who filled the museum even on weekday afternoons.
Conceptually, the show is divided into three sections: "Design and Imagination," "Ordinary Life Practice," and "Future and History." In actual fact, the boundaries between categories proved rather porous, and works were all lumped together throughout the various galleries.
Design and Imagination
The very notion of "Design and Imagination" seems like a way for the applied arts to edge their inevitable way towards idle esthetics. And indeed, the category included one of the most lovable pieces of the entire biennale, the charmingly functionless Rose of Shanghai by Italian artist Alessandra Tesi (b. 1969), a video projected unto floor panels covered in colored sequins. Maraniello compared the work to a "technological fresco," and the glittering floor tiles were meant to resemble an anamorphic recreation of the glittering Shanghai skyline, a magical image of hulking skyscrapers become suddenly light, impermanent and lovely.
Tesi’s work has an organic interplay of light and color that mimics the ebb and flow of the natural world. This "naturalness" was echoed in the painstakingly photorealistic oil paintings by U.K. artist Kristian Ryokan (b. 1976), which were hung throughout the halls of the Shanghai Museum, exuding an otherworldly clarity and calm despite their rather haphazard installation. In Ryokan’s hands, a depiction of an arrangement of contemporary designer chairs, as in Painting No. 40, has a natural dignity.
These two artists were relatively low-key compared to most of the works in the Shanghai Biennial. Interactivity dominated the taste on display. Even works that weren’t interactive in the true sense elicited the sort of inquisitive glee more common to science museums than art shows, with plenty of button pushing and lever pulling.
Some works, like the installation by Chinese artist Wang Luyan (b. 1956) of an apartment turned 90 degrees on its side so that visitors could walk on the walls, seemed pulled directly from a children’s museum. Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger contributed Artificial Fertility, a fountain that produces a bubbling stream of liquid fertilizer that coagulates into lurid pink crystals.
Los Angeles-based Osman Khan (b. 1973) presented a table set with fruits and vegetables, bottles of wine, plates and cups that visitors could handle and move. A suspended video setup captured images of the table surface and projected them back onto the table again in a steady flow of information, creating a weird, dreamy feedback loop of imagery as audiences engaged with it. And Japanese artist Haruki Nishijima (b. 1971) provided a high-tech butterfly net outfitted with a microphone and antenna, allowing visitors to take swipes at colored dots moving across a series of screens, "catching" the virtual insects.
Even Ding Yi (b. 1962), one of China’s most noted abstract painters, got into the interactive act. Ding departed from his usual medium to produce Time-Space Post Office, a series of brightly colored mailboxes, marked with his signature cross pattern. Museum visitors use these boxes to send letters "into the future," writing their hopes and dreams onto note cards that are then posted on bulletin boards surrounding the boxes for other guests to read and annotate.
True, even pieces with such gee-whiz content can have a sinister dimension. Xia Xiaowan’s three-dimensional "X-ray" paintings made of a cube of glass sheets, featuring ghostly holograph-like faces and the like, had the troubling alienness of medical images. Hong Kong graphic designer Chan Yau Kin (b. 1950) -- the "father of design in Hong Kong" -- produced A Brand New Game, a series of large-scale logos of global corporations -- but made as a collage of the insignia of their corporate rivals. To Shanghaians, the image of a Nike swoosh comprised of thousands of tiny Adidas logos is a wry comment on the notion of "collaborative competition" that the city uses to promote its capitalist development.
For another of the Biennial’s selection categories, "The Practice of Everyday Life," the curators selected works that ostensibly flirted with the ways design affects our everyday perception -- but in fact, the interactivity of the capitalist marketplace was the subtext for the objects in this section. Some works seemed to chronicle daily life, like the Four Seasons by Taiwanese artist Jimmy (b. 1958), a suite of 120 lovely illustrations in the style of meticulous children’s storybook images. Others seem utopian and futuristic, like New Stories New Design by the Italian design firm Cibic and Partners, who make colorful dioramas of stick figures interacting with balloons and other weird props.
The L.A.-based, Cuban-born designer Jorge Pardo (b. 1963) contributed an installation of branded T-shirts bearing images of his own work, while Italian jokester Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971) presented Anni vs. Marlene, a group of fake ‘70s movie posters reimagining a documentary by Maximilian Schell about Marlene Dietrich and notable Bauhaus textile designer Anni Albers.
Other works seemed more critical, like the menacing T-Mart of Belgian designer and architect Hans Op de Beeck (b. 1969), an architectural scale model of an empty parking lot surrounding a big-box retail store, which highlights the weird totalitarian overtones of such commercial spaces. Dutch artist Marnix de Nijs (b. 1970) offered a treadmill hooked up to a screen depicting a featureless running track -- the image becomes clearer the faster you run, prompting the viewer to begin sprinting as if chased (it’s titled Run Motherfucker Run).
Most interestingly, several works here reflect on China’s own relationship to design, at least to the extent that design is a component of economic development. In Yiwu Installation by Liu Jianhua (b. 1963), a shipping container spilling consumer trash, "low-design" items -- cheap, mass-produced, disposable –- provide an unsightly reminder of the China’s growing environmental malaise. Yan Jun (b. 1968) produced Conversation, a set of Classical Chinese furniture pieces made out of old radiator pipes. The sturdiness and elegance of the set, at odds with its grimy industrial finish, is shorthand for many contradictory images of China: as elegant, timeless, conservative, utilitarian, industrial, polluted, uncomfortable.
The third curatorial tag, "Future Constructions of History," turned out to be the most utopian, as the curators trained their sights on the part that design can play in moving society towards a better future. This spin may be particularly appropriate, given the endless hype about China as the country of the future.
Still, much of the work seemed tinged with wistfulness and ambiguity rather than hope. The video installation by Charles Sandison (b. 1969), for instance, presents the Chinese characters for family relations (mother, father, brother, sister) as simple white text in constant motion against a black background, swarming, quivering and interacting in an image of family ties reduced to constant, random, interchangeable activity. An Untitled video installation by Shilpa Gupta (b. 1976) cast viewers’ shadows against a wall, adding in a computer-generated shadowy figure that interacts with them, sometimes aggressively.
The Korean artist Lee Kyung-Ho (b. 1967) presented an installation of dozens of toy back-hoes, moving in a never-ending rhythm of churning and digging, their shadows projected giant-size across the wall. And, in the poetic Missing Note by Paul Ramirez Jonas (b. 1965), viewers were asked to play the missing note in a series of chimes that robotically played a popular Chinese song -- filling in the missing human component in an automated world.
In the same gallery, Jonas displayed Another Day, a LED billboard that displays the "Time to Sunrise" for 90 cities around the globe. As a new day dawns in some remote city, its name disappears from the signboard in a quick, silent flash -- a picture of the global world as one of constant connection and loss.
Overall, the Shanghai Biennale was as much a socially conscious carnival as a museum show. As such, the focus on design can be seen as a kind of curatorial alibi, an approach that allows for a lot of crowd-pleasing invention within a context of social uplift. And, more critically, the exhibition reflects the movement of China from a place of deep artistic traditions into something more seamlessly integrated into the global world of spectacular entertainments.
Tu Wei-cheng’s clever installation, Archaeological Finds from Bu Nam Civilization in Shanghai, seemed to play on just such a sense of the past and the future. A fake museum display dedicated to the fictitious "Bu Nam" civilization, the piece gave the impression that Chinese society was already looking at its traditions from outside, through the eyes of art and design. Tu appropriates the institutional seriousness of anthropological displays and all their educational trappings, including placards, audio tours -- and yes, that emblem of art world commercial populism, a gift shop.
SUMMER BLOCK is a writer and critic living in Shanghai.